Improving the profitability & sustainability of Esperance port zone grain growers


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Back in 1993, concern was raised amongst farmers following a statement by grain marketer AWB that the quality of wheat grown in the Esperance Port Zone was poor and it had a low market rating. At the same time the Western Australian Department of Agriculture (WADA) had cut back their early stage selection trials from the Esperance region to focus on the areas surrounding Perth. Hence a few blokes got together to organise a Wheat Quality and Varieties Seminar in July 1993 to address the issues at hand.

AWB was invited to present information based on their concerns, to farmers in the region who had a lot of questions that still couldn’t be answered. Data presented by the AWB showed that the area produced wheat that had high screenings and low protein.

Growers were not happy and in a symbolic gesture, Jerdacuttup farmer Ian Goldfinch put up $100 to kick off a group to represent the interests of Esperance wheat growers and to tackle the issues head on. Another meeting was organised in October that same year, to form a steering committee to constitute a group to look into the problems and to lobby for a better outcome for Esperance wheat growers.

The Steering Committee was elected from the floor of interested people and consisted of the late David Reichstein, Ian Goldfinch, Ben Curtis, Mark Biven, Chris Roberts, John Richardson and Rory Graham.

The group decided to call themselves the “South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (SEPWA)”, which originated as a tongue in cheek name and continues to be used today. The late David Reichstein was instrumental in the foundations of the group with a constitution, protocol and committee nomination policies.

On tour in the 90's
On tour in the 90'sIn March 1994, a wheat grower’s seminar was held and part of the meeting resulted in the election of the first SEPWA committee. This consisted of Ben Curtis, Chris Roberts, Bowe Wilson, Mark Harvey, the late David Reichstein, Rory Graham, Steve Graham, John Richardson, John Warren, Rob Shirras, Mark Weckert and Mark Biven. The group’s focus was to improve the poor perception of Esperance wheat and turn its image around to ensure its marketability.

A trip to Perth in August 1994, to catch up with AWB and the WADA highlighted what the committee was dealing with and how out of touch some people were with what was happening on the ground. They were alarmed to hear from the experts that their assessment of Esperance wheat was vastly different from that grown by the farmers and did not reflect what was happening on the farm. While it created some unease, the issue was resolved through discussions and visits to the region by AWB and WADA where they were shown the farming district and educated about the region and current farming practices.

Visits to flour mills and bakeries were also on the agenda for the committee, in order to bring themselves up to speed with the quality parameters required to make bread and wheat flour products. At the same time, they started to strongly lobby for wheat breeding and selection to be localised again. They emphasised that “breeding for the environment” was a priority for farmers as Esperance was so far removed and had different drivers for variety choice compared to other regions.

1995 - 1997

Mark Biven and Chris Roberts on tour in the early days of SEPWAThe group had a big win in 1995 when it met with Gill Hollamby, a wheat breeder from South Australia, who expressed a strong interest in having early selection plots in the Esperance region. At the time a lot of South Australian varieties were been grown in the area and given the regions similarities with his environment, Gill was only too happy to commence early selection plots in the region in 1997.

There were benefits for both parties with the emergence of varieties better adapted to our environment and it allowed Gill to “drought proof” his breeding program by spreading the seasonal risk. The WADA also came to the party with the re-introduction of breeding work at Esperance Downs Research Station (EDRS).

From 1995, SEPWA developed a program of large plot farmer sown trials and the first one was sown at Bowe Wilson’s farm at Speddingup where the Sunelg varieties were put to the test. Supported by WADA through a lot of leg work done by Ben Curtis, the varieties and the trial locations continued to grow as breeders were happy to support them with their breeding material.

The trials proved very popular during field days as they were based on commercially available varieties and a few numbered varieties that were close to release. The SEPWA variety trials still play a major role in the group’s work today. The wheat variety trials were introduced as a part of an overall strategy to improve Esperance wheat and to grow varieties that were better suited to the local growing conditions. They demonstrated how new wheat varieties fared in terms of yield and agronomic issues including rust which was very prevalent, against varieties such as Spear and Janz that were grown at the time.

Farmers were given a degree of confidence to adopt new varieties that were more resistant to disease and higher yielders which better met the receival standards – hence more profitable for them to grow. The trials have been responsible for changing the culture of farmers in the region to be more versatile and adaptive to change.

Various study tours were also organised tofurther the committee’s knowledge and in 1995, they packed their bags and headed east to Victoria and New South Wales. The committee also investigated further down the supply chain through a study tour in 1997 to Vietnam, Singapore and the Middle East with another trip to Singapore, Vietnam and the USA in 2000. They visited flourmills, supermarkets, bakeries, noodle factories, testing laboratories and more - to get in touch with the market place and find out how Australian wheat was received and performed. While wheat was the original focus of the group, barley was also discussed and included in the SEPWA logo from the start.


In 1997 the group became involved in barley issues and introduced barley variety trials at the insistence of Mic Curnow, which were based on the same principals as the successful wheat trials.

From day one, the SEPWA committee has being very proactive in raising the profile of Esperance as a region and the grain produced within the port zone. They have re-introduced breeding trials into the area, created linkages with overseas customers and become a significant farmer lobby group, who continues to contribute to many grain industry issues today. The group has well and truly met the original expectations and changed grain marketer’s attitude and the market place, in terms of the quality of Esperance wheat. They have gained industry respect and provided a voice for growers through lobbying various sectors of the industry, all in the name of growing better grain.

2003 - 2004

Awards for service were presented in 2004 to some of the original committee - Steve Graham, Chris Roberts, David Reichstein and Bowe WilsonSince SEPWA’s inception 20 years ago, the group has continued to grow and has become a very reputable and successful organisation. Over that time SEPWA has played a significant role in lobbying and representing grain growers throughout the Esperance Port Zone (EPZ) along with conducting local variety trials, managing various research projects and organising events for members.

Ten years into the life of SEPWA, a lot had changed and unfortunately as the profile of the group increased, so did the workload. As a consequence of the group’s success, the volunteer work carried out by Executive members, with support from DAFWA’s Ben Curtis, became too demanding. Quoted at the time, President Mark Biven said the Executive realised that the group could achieve more on behalf on the membership if they had more time. “But as volunteers it is too hard to run and with the responsibility of running our own farms, we don’t have the time to organise events and manage the group’s activities. “We also know that less resources will be available for research from agencies in the future, so we need to raise funds to drive the group,” Mark said.

Therefore the Executive decided to progress with plans to employ an Executive Officer to look for more opportunities for the membership and help take SEPWA to a new level. However in order to employ staff, the group which had operated on a limited budget in the past, had to embark on a sponsorship drive to raise money to fund the position.

In 2003 former ABC Rural Reporter, Julia Ashby was employed on a short term contract as the Sponsorship Coordinator to liaise with potential sponsors. More than $50,000 was raised through a sponsorship drive of local businesses and agricultural organisations and membership fees were also increased to assist with the employment of the Executive Officer. Mark Biven said we were overwhelmed with the response and welcomed aboard our first Diamond Sponsors in Rabobank, Summit, Farm and General and AWB. Other sponsors who signed up from day one were Silver Sponsors – Staines Esperance and Nufarm; and Bronze Sponsors – South East Petroleum and United Farmers. Upon reaching the sponsorship goal at the end of 2003, SEPWA moved to employ their first official staff member - a part time Group Development Officer through a formal interview process.

Julia Ashby was successful in applying for the position and took on the task of running the organisation and further progressing the group’s activities, while managing the sponsorship contracts. She helped improve communication with members through the production of a regular newsletter and ensuring the webpage was updated, organised events and provided support for the Executive. Julia was responsible for the introduction of the SEPWA Ladies day and the Annual Grain Growers’ dinner.

As the group gained some momentum, the sponsor family continued to grow, with Ratten & Slater soon joining up as a Diamond Sponsor; CBH came on board as a Gold Sponsor and Syngenta (Silver) and Rinex (Bronze). With the progression of SEPWA, the group started to acquire more part –time staff to assist with the day to day running of the group and project management.

2005 - 2006

Cath FieldsLocal farming girl, Cath Field was employed on a contract basis in 2005 to undertake a Sustainable Agriculture project and to look for further funding opportunities for SEPWA. Hence Kelly Guest, who hailed from Salmon Gums commenced with the group in the role of Project Officer for the “More than a Passing Phase” project which focused on ryegrass pastures. In 2004, Julia took a few months off to start a family, in which Cath Field stepped into the role as Group Development Officer to manage the group and organise events.

Throughout time, the SEPWA trials program has continued to be the core of the group’s activities and it was originally run by DAFWA’s Ben Curtis, who had been a part of SEPWA since the early days. As the variety trials program continued to expand throughout the region, the work became more demanding which resulted in the employment of Jerdacuttup farm boy, Nigel Metz. Nigel commenced with SEPWA in 2005 and is still an integral part of the group. In that time he has managed the trials program; undertaken valuable research on high moisture harvesting and barley purity testing; and investigated the possibility of container exports through the Esperance Port. He is very progressive hence a focus on precision agriculture, new enzyme brewing technology for making beer from raw barley as opposed to using malt and the use of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets in farming.

With three part time staff now working for SEPWA, the volunteer Treasurer’s role was becoming increasingly difficult to continue to do in a book as the overall budget had increased dramatically since the early days. Trained Accountant, Marnie Fels who farms out at Beaumont was employed as Finance Officer. She was responsible for setting up the budget and actuals reporting format and computerised the SEPWA books. Cath Field continued to provide a backstop for SEPWA and filled in in various roles to help with funding grants and upon Julia’s resignation, in September 2006 to further add to her family, Cath picked up the reins once again.


In late 2006 with various projects on the go and with a membership base of more than 200 people to cater for, the Executive decided to move to employ a full time Executive Officer based at the local Department of Agriculture (DAFWA) office in Esperance. Jerdacuttup farm girl, Gemma Walker took over the role at the end of 2006 through until 2011. In that time, she was responsible for managing five staff along with the group’s activities and projects. Gemma organised three international study tours and expanded the sponsorship base along with the development of a major partnership with Interflour who stepped in to help fund the trials program.

2007 - 2012

In 2008, Marnie Fels resigned and Esperance local, Jan Clawson took over control of the SEPWA finances mid-year. Jan is responsible for general book keeping, the membership data base and event registration for the numerous events that SEPWA holds throughout the year. She is ever reliable and her job boundaries extend beyond book keeping. As the budget has continued to grow and projects that SEPWA was involved in increased, the role of Bookkeeper has become pertinent to the running of SEPWA. Today the group is financed through sponsorship, membership and the particular projects that staff are employed under. SEPWA’s turnover for the last financial year was $575, 000, compared to $98,000 back in 2004/05 which tells a story in itself in terms of how much the group has grown.

Julia Ashby was once again welcomed back in mid-2008 and took on the role of “Media Officer” to help raise the profile of the group and the project’s it is involved in. Her role involves writing media releases, compiling the SEPWA newsletter and assist with project publicity. SEPWA is the only grower group in Western Australia to have a designated “Media Officer”.


Kelly GuestIn early 2009 after three years with SEPWA and upon the completion of her project, Kelly Guest resigned to venture overseas. She made an enormous contribution to SEPWA during her time and produced a handbook for ryegrass management, and also assisted with the SEPWA trials.

As SEPWA continued to grow and take on more projects and organise more events, the Executive were concerned that the Trials program was not been prioritised enough. In 2009, a new sponsorship agreement with Interflour resulted in more money for the SEPWA variety trials and funds to employ a designated SEPWA Trials Coordinator. Therefore that year, SEPWA took another step forward with the employment of Esperance local, Bill Sharp as Trials’ Coordinator. Bill is still employed part time today and his role is to oversee the farmer scale trials and to ensure that maximum value is extracted from the SEPWA trials program. The trials program expanded from wheat and barley varieties to include canola varieties for the first time that year.bMr Sharp liaises with breeding programs and seed companies to be able to access new and upcoming varieties to trial in the local variety trials.


In 2011 after five years as the SEPWA Executive Officer, Gemma Walker resigned to head east to take up the position as the Executive Manager of Mallee Sustainable Farming Inc. Niki Curtis, who was born and bred in Esperance, was appointed to the position and bought with her a lot of experience along with her established networks through her job with DAFWA, where she works one day a week. She oversees the management of SEPWA including projects, staff, sponsorship, events organisation and she is directly involved in the SEPWA Chemicals project. A change in Executive Officer brings fresh ideas and opportunities to the group and hence Niki has moved SEPWA up another level. She has initiated a full colour glossy newsletter that gets mailed out to members, an updated webpage with more information, and strengthened the relationship with DAFWA. Today SEPWA has come a long way since its inception and have five staff, a turnover of more than $500,000 and four projects underway plus the extensive SEPWA trials program.

2012 - 2015