Operation Grain Harvest Assist – from strength to strength

By Lieutenant Colonel Garry Spencer AM (Retd)

COVID was a tough time for many Australians, including our hardworking grain-growers.

In late 2021, with a bumper harvest looking likely due to the La Nina weather pattern, farmers were hopeful of a good harvest yield, ideally making up for several sub-optimal previous years.

However, due to COVID, and the toughening of border entry standards into the nation, their usual supply of backpacker labour was just not going to arrive.

As the ABC’s Landline expounded on the problem, I was watching the TV due to lengthy lockdowns in Victoria.

Perhaps more exasperated than normal, I shouted back at the TV that an Australian solution could be devised – the contention being that former tank drivers with the requisite training could become competent harvester operators!

I got in touch with some of the people who had appeared in the Landline episode. Speaking to them helped define the problem, the locations in need and the ‘good idea’ started to take more shape.

A quick sanity check with former Australian Defence Force mates and colleagues in each state helped firm up the idea. And so Operation Grain Harvest Assist (OPGHA) was born!

With enthusiastic assistance from Grain Producers Australia, who advised Landline, a website was established and two Facebook pages were linked to it – one for the east coast and one for the west coast.

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Overhead photo of a grain header doing its work

This took a few weeks. But now the OPGHA Program was ready to launch, and where better to do that than on Landline, where the whole idea started?

We estimate that 250–300 veterans answered the call to assist the grain-growers of the nation.

This included a retired Major General who 4 years previously commanded 15,000 troops as the Commander of the 1st Division. With his mate from Sydney, a retired Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Colonel, he went harvesting in the Lightning Ridge area of NSW. Together they not only supported a grain-grower, but produced a number of YouTube videos on their adventures. These are still available by going to YouTube and searching for ‘Operation Grain Harvest Assist’ or ‘Andrew Condon’.

Since those early days, there have been many developments within OPGHA. We’re a volunteer-run organisation but the veterans who do the actual harvesting are paid for their work.

In Horsham in September 2022, we conducted a training course on grain headers (pictured) for 18 veterans. A grain header is what used to be called a combine harvester. The course was principally sponsored by CASE IH Australia, supported by O’Connors – its biggest distributor here. Other agricultural machinery and equipment dealers also came on board, as did a number of very helpful grain-growers in the Wimmera and Mallee area.

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About 30 people, mostly older men, posing for photo

The course participants (pictured) stayed at the renowned Longerenong Agricultural College whose staff were also very generous and welcoming.

O’Connors provided its Chief Instructor and Executive Sales Manager for the duration of the 4-day course as well as two new grain headers. Almost all participants deployed across the nation, from the Queensland border down to the Mallee-Wimmera region, to assist the grain harvest. The welcome afforded to the veterans by the Horsham community was a highlight as were the visits to local grain-growers who made us all feel very much respected and appreciated.

Channel 9’s A Current Affair program attended 3 days of the 4-day training course, producing a very helpful segment about OPGHA. The video and article are on the Channel Nine website.

In March 2023, at the request of Cotton Australia, we conducted a 4-day training course in Moree in north-central NSW on cotton pickers and strippers – ten veterans took part. The training was conducted by a Moree contract harvesting company called BMC, which also provided machines for the course. 

A national John Deere dealership called RDO Equipment allowed us to use the boardroom on the top floor of its dealership as our classroom.

A number of the veterans who trained on the course deployed to assist the cotton harvest, principally in northern NSW. After the course, a team from the Sydney Channel 9 newsroom visited some of these veterans. This news story was syndicated nationally. You can see it on the Channel 9 Facebook page (www.facebook.com/9News).

As part of the course, we visited the cotton-ginning facility in Moree. The firm is called North West Ginning and they’re keen to hear from veterans.

Cotton Australia has told me that it would like us to conduct another training course for veterans in the first quarter of 2024 in south-west Queensland – possibly Chinchilla. We will very shortly be requesting Expressions of Interest via our Facebook pages, which now have over 2,000 supporters.

We are fielding enquiries from the sugarcane industry up and down the north Queensland coast. It is highly likely that in future we will be supporting all three agricultural sectors: grain, cotton and sugarcane.

We are convinced of the need to train veterans on specific aspects of the grain and cotton industry and are in the process of leveraging our now-proven successful training program, establishing our own training team, based on those with the deepest and broadest experience, in conjunction with recognised trainers. 

We are looking at methods of developing and recognising the experience of veterans in harvest work, so that their pay reflects the expertise that they have.

Great relationships have been developed with the leaders of these industries, with growers, dealers, equipment suppliers, as well as local communities.

The warmth and sincerity of their welcome to our veterans has been wonderful to see and experience. This aspect has been the most satisfying of the program as has the opportunity to work yet again with an outstanding group of our ADF veterans!

Serving them and seeing them working so well with our grain, cotton and cane growers, having a great time and earning serious amounts of cash to supplement their ADF pensions, has been its own reward.

We believe the program has a great future, even becoming a national institution, as more growers and the agricultural industry as a whole recognise and appreciate the value that our veterans can bring to their enterprises.

The success of the program to date hinges on the quality of our veterans. Without exception, they have impressed both their trainers and those who have worked with them.

We owe particular thanks to so many people from so many parts of our nation’s vital agricultural industry – from growers, to processors, to equipment dealers and product handlers, to equipment repairers and other suppliers as well as to the local communities.

The program has given us the opportunity to work with these wonderful people and we now have many contacts across the nation who would all be delighted to welcome a veteran onto their team.

To all veterans, when you are considering leaving the ADF, I suggest that you consider a career in agriculture where so many things are similar to your ADF service, including working in the great outdoors, on advanced equipment, with well-led teams, all working towards achieving challenging objectives and in country areas where you are respected and appreciated. 

We have contacts with tertiary institutions where you can gain formal qualifications in farm management or related areas by flexible delivery, enabling you to start preparing before you transition out, if that is your desire.

One way to see if agriculture is what you want to do in the future, is to attend one of our industry-funded training courses, then complete a harvest with one of our family farms, often working with another veteran who has been there and done it before.

For further information:

Garry Spencer:  admin [at] opgha.org.au () / 0418 996 856 / www.opgha.org.au

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Grain header at work at sunset