A new practice for medico turned farmer

TO LOOK at Mark Petersen's winter cereal crop, you would think he'd been farming this Wyrallah paddock for generations.

In fact, the emergency room doctor admits that until two years ago he didn't even know what a ripper was, let alone a grains contract.

This foray into agriculture began after he met his partner, Ellie Kennedy, also a doctor, who works out of Riverside Family Practice at Casino.

"She wouldn't show me her farm at first," Mark said.

"She was too embarrassed of its state."

Two years on and the couple is close to harvesting their second winter cereal crop - this year a mix of wheat and barley - after successfully harvesting two summer crops of quality soybean.

There were plenty of naysayers prior to the couple ploughing in resources and time to bring a wet paddock into production.

Mark started by laser levelling the ground and creating a sloping drain that now handles 150mm of rain in a single hit.

Next he created mounds that each hold three rows of crop. Those mounds remain season after season, unless they are damaged.

LAND LOVE: Mark Petersen and Ellie Kennedy, of Wyrallah, in their field of barley.
LAND LOVE: Mark Petersen and Ellie Kennedy, of Wyrallah, in their field of barley. Jamie Brown

They work in a couple of ways to improve cultivation - allowing water to drain quickly and letting air into the root system from the sides of the mounds as soon as that water level drops.

Last summer's bountiful soybean crop was tested in this manner after a minor flood in the Wilsons River completely covered the foliage, leaving the plants caked in alluvial mud. But the water drained away in 30 hours and a series of rain showers following the event washed the leaves clean.

The crop returned 2.4 tonnes to the hectare.

Mark expects to retrieve between one and five tonnes to the hectare on his wheat crop, with returns on the barley to be revealed at next month's harvest.

"With regards to the barley, I have no idea. Seriously. I'm a doctor!" he said.

Mark is quick to admit he is a hobby farmer who ploughs all his net returns back into the venture - most of that going towards Ellie's horses.

He's the first to say farming in the current economy is a mug's game.

"There's no money in it," he said, pointing out that from a $20,000 gross return on 70 acres, 10% goes toward seed cost, $1000 to spray, $4000 to the contract harvester and that doesn't include fuel costs and labour," he said.

"You would need a thousand acres to make a living off it."

Mark has also discovered some of the pitfalls when it comes to selling his produce. Crop contracts unfulfilled because of flood or hail still need to be closed and that means buying in grain to meet any shortfall.

"The farmer takes all the risk," he said ruefully.

The techniques Mark has adopted - minimal till and employing a double-disc planter that chops through last season's stubble - helps to keep input costs down.

Of course, the weeds from the flood pose the biggest problem.

"We have no chance of going organic because of those weeds," Mark said.

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