JUST as they do on the land, grain terminal operator Jock Carter spends a lot of time looking to the heavens while keeping his fingers crossed.
"We're a little bit like farmers by the sea," Mr Carter said.
"We watch the rainfall forecasts with the same amount of interest as those guys."
After years of dealing with the impact of drought, Mr Carter, the co-CEO of Newcastle Agri Terminal, is hoping improved weather conditions will at long last lead to bumper crops, and his company's five silos at Carrington being filled with grains for export.
"We'd be hoping we'd do a million tonnes of grain next year, which would be an amazing turnaround from this year, where we'll probably do something like 30,000 or 40,000 tonnes of export grain," Mr Carter said. "So you're talking about very significant changes."
Mr Carter said Newcastle Agri Terminal's catchment included farms in central and western NSW, and up to the Queensland border.
However, having contended with three consecutive drought seasons, some farmers had not planted a crop for years, which had meant a dramatic drop in volumes making their way down the rail lines to Newcastle for export.
A spokesman for the Port of Newcastle said more than 1.8 million tonnes of wheat, worth about $360 million, was exported from the port in 2017.
But that dropped to 379,000 tonnes in 2018 and only about 41,000 tonnes in 2019, as the drought took hold.
A range of other grains exported through the port plummeted from volumes of 230,000 to 250,000 tonnes annually to just 14,600 tonnes in 2019.
There was not even enough grain being produced to meet local demand.
"The port has recently been in the unusual situation of having more wheat coming in than going out," the Port of Newcastle spokesman said.
The spokesman said about 314,000 tonnes of wheat was brought into the port in 2019.
So Newcastle's grain terminal operators largely switched from being exporters to importers.
"The shortage was so big, we've had to bring grain from Western Australia and South Australia just to effectively feed ourselves and our animals," Mr Carter said.
"It's probably been close to a million tonnes of grain that has come into Newcastle... in 18 months to 24 months."
The nearby GrainCorp terminal has been importing supplies from other states to help meet domestic demand since 2018.
"We're expecting the final few import vessels at Newcastle in July, coming from Western Australia, and we expect them to be our last," said GrainCorp's Jade Mann in a statement.
The signs for later this year are promising. According to the federal Agriculture Department's Australian Crop Report for June, "The start to the 2020-21 winter cropping in New South Wales has been excellent".
The report stated there had been a "significant increase" in the area planted with winter crops compared with previous drought-affected years.
Wheat production was forecast to be about 8.3 million tonnes, according to the June report.
"So you've got a beautiful combination of more area being planted, better yields and productivity with that land, and we've had terrific rainfall since," said Mr Carter.
"So at this stage it's all lining up very nicely."
Mr Mann, GrainCorp's Newcastle site manager, is cautiously optimistic.
"Given the early positive signs of the season ahead, we expect reasonable throughput to Newcastle this season, likely starting in November," Mr Mann said.
"But there's a lot of weather variables ahead of us, so we'll have to wait and see what our prospects are, as the season develops.
"We're optimistic with the conditions so far and hopeful for a much healthier harvest for growers on the east coast, and we're looking forward to reverting back to export operations at the port."
Mr Carter expects a few tough months until the winter crop is harvested in October and November, and "we'd be hoping to be starting to load ships in December".
However, next week a ship is due to berth at the wharf neighbouring Newcastle Agri Terminal's silos to load 12,000 tonnes of high-quality wheat for export to Japan.
"That's very small by export standards," Mr Carter said.
"But in the scheme of exports out of New South Wales and Queensland this year, it's significant."
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