Western Downs grain grower Neil Wegener is well known for his dry sense of humour, as well as his commitment to dryland farming, and his neighbourhood peers paid homage to both recently.
The second-generation grower and his wife Cath’s passion for sharing knowledge was recognised at a Brigalow Growers’ Group meeting, an organisation Mr Wegener established more than a decade ago to create a ‘place’ where he and his neighbours could ‘compare farming experiences and hear from industry experts’.
Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Crop Protection Officer – North Vicki Green was amongst the growers invited to celebrate the Wegener’s contribution and commitment to growing knowledge in their region recently.
“Neil and Cath were instrumental in starting the Brigalow Growers’ Group and have played a vital role in connecting growers in their region with new research and developments in everything from weed control to machinery,” Mrs Green said.
“It is a successful example of how grower groups can work together effectively and create a community that values sharing and wants members to feel included and benefit from new knowledge and local experience.”
For Mr Wegener, starting the group was a natural progression for a grower who was always curious about what and how he could do a better job farming.
Farm life for the personable Western Downs grower began back in 1969, when he left school to work on his family’s farm, Karingal, at Brigalow. He met his wife, Cath in 1973 and by the early 1980s had bought out his brothers. Today he runs the property, which has grown to a 1620 hectare grain growing operation, with his wife, son Daniel and daughter-in-law Melissa.
This has been a tough season for the Wegeners with a dry winter reducing their area under crop to just 250ha of barley and 140ha of chickpeas.
“It was so dry this season that we would not have been able to plant at all, if it wasn’t for the fact that we have significantly changed how we farm over the past decade or so,” Mr Wegener said.
“Modern farming practices like zero till and early weed control meant although we had no rain to plant on, we could sow deep and get away with it.
“Although we did have one of the worst strikes of barley I have seen in more than 40 years of farming, we got away with it after some showers in spring and we ended up getting 700 tonnes of barley off 250ha (610 acres) while the chickpea yield was 400kg/ac.”
But in the scheme of things Mr Wegener said a dry winter was just one of the regular challenges growers faced as part of the grains industry.
“Like most people we’ve had bigger challenges than the weather. A dry season or a few dry seasons is part of what happens out here.”
When it comes to facing bigger challenges, high on the list for this stoic farming family would be working together to deal with Mr Wegener’s health issues.
“Basically, I got sick, there were some complications and I ended up with a brain injury. So, our son Daniel stepped up and I stepped down and it’s worked well.
“That is not to say there haven’t been challenges. My son is a brilliant bloke and a great farmer, but as in any business there has to be some give and take, before you find middle ground and that was the way it was for us.”
The grower group was already well established when Mr Wegener was diagnosed with a brain injury, and keeping it going gave him purpose.
“I had started the grower group about 13 years ago, my motivation for starting that year came as we were looking at paying $1300/t for urea and there was talk Roundup was heading to $18/litre,” Mr Wegener said.
“It was becoming more important than ever that we made the right choices on-farm and we had information overload. What we needed was just the relevant information, up-to-date stuff on variety, chemicals, fertiliser rates.
“So, I pulled together some brilliant blokes like agronomist Glen Milne from Dalby to give us the information we needed, and then I made some phone calls to growers who I thought could benefit and were forward-looking.”
These days, group membership is sitting at about 30 and includes growers from the neighbouring regions of Jandowae, Hopelands and Warra.
“I don’t want to take credit for the fact the group is still going. I never did it for the accolades, it has always been about getting the right information out to the blokes, who I thought could benefit,” Mr Wegener said.
“We meet three or four times a year and we always have a line-up of guest speakers and we usually bring a few beers, and extra beers if you want to stay to socialise after the formal bit is over.”
Most importantly, he said, groups like the Brigalow growers’ were a vital conduit for researchers and developers to deliver the latest information on everything from new trial results, to machinery changes and best practice spray data directly to those who needed it on-farm.
“We work in a changing environment in this business and we need to keep up with the changes, the more informed we are the better placed we are for the future,” Mr Wegener said.
When it comes to meetings of the grower group he doesn’t believe in being regimented, but he is steadfast about ‘a couple of rules’.
“When we go to someone’s place to look at new machinery or farming practices, I warn the group questions are fine, but harsh criticisms are not. No one needs to feel judged by their neighbours,” Mr Wegener said.
While the grower group takes up a little of his time, he has no plans to step down from the co-ordinator role until one of his peers steps up.
“I think that the members make the group what it is, and I do rely on help from heavyweights in the industry for ideas, connections and information,” Mr Wegener said.
“But this group works well because of who its members are; their attitude is vitally important. Our oldest member is 75 years young, and attends most meetings, and it is that sort of commitment that keeps our group going.”