Fuel proof

How South East Petroleum keeps fuel flow­ing to farm­ers

Farms & Farm Machinery - - Contents -

Keep­ing the wheels of agri­cul­ture and in­dus­try turn­ing can be a chal­lenge in re­gional Aus­tralia. The tyranny of dis­tance and a change­able cli­mate makes for a big job de­scrip­tion. Esper­ance-based South East Petroleum, on the south coast of West­ern Aus­tralia, is tasked with keep­ing the fuel flow­ing to the south­ern wheat­belt’s farm­ers and in­dus­try.

It’s an iso­lated and sparsely pop­u­lated area that clings to the gran­ite, sand, scrub and clay of the Esper­ance Plains sand­wiched be­tween the South­ern Ocean and the gold­fields to the North.

GLOBAL GATE­WAY

The Port of Esper­ance is the area’s gate­way to the world. Fifty per cent of Aus­tralia’s wheat crop is grown in WA and more than 95 per cent of that har­vest is ex­ported to for­eign mar­kets, with some of it pass­ing through this port. Yet this south­ern-most tip of the West Aus­tralian wheat belt is still some­thing of a re­mote out­post.

South East Petroleum is the lo­cal BP dis­trib­u­tor. The busi­ness has been owned and op­er­ated by Grant and Michelle Har­ris since 1990 and han­dles fuel de­liv­er­ies to farms, busi­nesses, work­sites and ser­vos around the Esper­ance re­gion.

SEP also sup­plies ser­vice sta­tions along the Nullar­bor plain as far as Cock­lebiddy. And, some­what sur­pris­ingly for this re­gion, the en­tire six-truck fleet con­sists of Sca­nia prime movers.

Grant Har­ris comes from a fam­ily farm­ing back­ground and the com­pany work­load tends to roll with the fluc­tu­a­tions of the agri­cul­tural sea­sons against the back­drop of con­sis­tent re­tail and in­dus­trial work.

Seed­ing and har­vest times see the SEP trucks busy keep­ing up with farm de­liv­er­ies as well as main­tain­ing the flow of fuel to re­tail out­lets and some BP cor­po­rate cus­tomers.

As you’d ex­pect of a coun­try fuel dis­trib­u­tor, South East Petroleum de­liv­ers ULP and PULP, but the ru­ral and in­dus­try fo­cus of the busi­ness sees diesel as the most in-de­mand prod­uct, Grant says, adding: “Diesel would be a good 90 per cent of our busi­ness.”

CHANG­ING TIMES

Grant says chang­ing farm­ing meth­ods over the last cou­ple of decades have had an in­ter­est­ing ef­fect on fuel de­mand dur­ing peak times.

“Dur­ing seed­ing, farm­ers are us­ing big­ger ma­chines, but pro­por­tion­ally less fuel per hectare,” he says. “But come

har­vest, when the weather comes right, it’s fran­tic. They’ve got three head­ers, a chaser bin and two trucks … they use a lot more fuel over har­vest than they used to.

“They just want to get it off while the weather’s good.” Ac­cord­ing to Grant, there are many in­no­va­tive farm­ing busi­nesses in the area.

“There are a lot of early in­no­va­tors down here,” he says. “They’ve set up the South Eastern Pre­mium Wheat Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion (SEPGA) to run their own tri­als, raise their own funds and get their own cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship.

“As an area, there’s a group of re­ally highly pro­gres­sive and in­no­va­tive farm­ers.”

ROAD TRAIN RUM­BLE

One South East Petroleum em­ployee is Trevor Bale, who drives one of the com­pany trucks. Trevor works part time for the com­pany as a re­lief driver while run­ning his own busi­ness.

I took the op­por­tu­nity to go for a run with him in a R620 Sca­nia hooked up to a set of dou­ble road train tankers.

Given the va­ri­ety of cus­tomers, the fleet uses a mix of B-dou­ble, road train, C-train and sin­gle-trailer com­bi­na­tions. Trevor has worked for SEP for over five years and fuel haulage is noth­ing new to him – years ago he cut his teeth with a 12-year stint haul­ing triples up north with Shell.

As a dou­ble road train, we were car­ry­ing 72,000 litres of diesel, and Trevor’s day was go­ing to con­sist mainly of farm de­liv­er­ies. Nicely in­su­lated in­side the R-se­ries cab, we idled out of town with the big V8 qui­etly rum­bling un­der our feet. In typ­i­cally Sca­nia fashion, the 16-litre didn’t raise much of a sweat as we climbed away from the coast; the Op­ti­cruise Au­to­mated gear­box qui­etly grabbed the re­quired cogs.

Two other R620s haul road train and C-train com­bi­na­tions. One is driven by 30-year com­pany vet­eran Glenn (Bindi) Sievewright, who looks af­ter the two-day Nul­labour run once a week, while the other is driven by Mick Cree­don.

SCA­NIA AGREE­MENT

All of the SEP trucks are on a Sca­nia Re­pair and Main­te­nance (R&M) agree­ment, with the trucks ser­viced at the lo­cal

Sca­nia agent ev­ery 15,000km. The trail­ers are ser­viced ev­ery 7000km. Be­cause the fleet trans­ports dan­ger­ous goods, the trucks and trail­ers are re­quired to have an in­de­pen­dent safety in­spec­tion ev­ery six months.

As a me­chanic by trade and wear­ing his main­te­nance hat, Trevor says: “The fixed cost fac­tor [of the R&M agree­ment] makes sense for us. It helps us un­der­stand our cost base.”

And, to date, he’s pretty keen to sing the praises of Sca­nia and the lo­cal work­shop, say­ing they’ve been well looked af­ter. The change­able weather that blows in off the South­ern Ocean had brought a brisk wind and show­ers in­land, slow­ing the fran­tic pace of har­vest.

As we drove, be­hind us the rear trailer and dolly rolled through a cloud road spray as Trevor and I chat­ted, his hands re­laxed on the wheel.

SIN­GLE SHIFT

The South East Petroleum fleet works on a sin­gle-shift, onetruck, one-driver ba­sis. As so much of the work is farm based, there’s no real call for around-the-clock de­liv­er­ies. No doubt not too many cus­tomers want to be wo­ken in the mid­dle night by a road train idling past the house.

Our des­ti­na­tion on this trip was the main prop­erty of Chill­well, which is run by the Fowler fam­ily. The Fowlers run 28,000 hectares, 18,500 of which are used for crop­ping.

Like many fam­ily farms in the area, Chill­well is only a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion busi­ness. Much of the area was vir­gin scrub un­til the first gen­er­a­tion moved into the area.

It was said that the area couldn’t be cropped. But, in keep­ing with Grant Har­ris’s ear­lier ob­ser­va­tions on in­no­va­tive farm­ers in the area, the Fowlers have a no-till ap­proach to crop­ping. They have also come to the at­ten­tion of oth­ers in the in­dus­try for the prac­tice of us­ing sprout­ing crop as pas­ture.

BIG MA­CHINES

You can imag­ine that a prop­erty of this size with mul­ti­ple head­ers work­ing flat-chat at har­vest has a mighty thirst for diesel. Hence the 100,000 litres of stor­age on the farm, as well as a farm-based fuel tanker. The ma­chines have got­ten big­ger, too. Head­ers with 50-foot combs are com­mon place in this area, as are 80-foot seed­ers.

Farm­ers run their own road train com­bi­na­tions and feed their seed­ers with tip­pers. They’re big ma­chines for big coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to Trevor, this in­crease in mech­a­ni­sa­tion has seen har­vest go from three months to just six weeks in many cases. And this har­vest was look­ing to be a record year, with many re­port­ing yields of four tonnes to the hectare.

MA­NOEU­VRA­BIL­ITY

Trevor’s R620 grum­bled along the rough black­top smoothly.

All of the trail­ers in the fleet are fit­ted with lift axles – as the com­part­ments are emp­tied axles lift off the ground, im­prov­ing ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity and fuel econ­omy on the empty run home.

The big Sca­nia slowed to a crawl, the re­tarder re­duc­ing the need for brak­ing as we de­scribed a slow arc into the prop­erty. The rain had stilled the head­ers for a bit, but the prop­erty was still a hive of ac­tiv­ity as main­te­nance was done.

The sand and clay soil crunched qui­etly un­der the wheels of the tanker as Trevor ex­pertly threaded the road train through the prop­erty gates, pulling to a stop along­side the fuel stor­age tanks. The heady post-rain smell of the damp earth hung in the air as if the pores of the land­scape had opened to breathe. I shook hands with Trevor and said my good­byes.

The big Swedish V8 looks to be serv­ing South East Petroleum well. In a role that would nor­mally be as­so­ci­ated with big Amer­i­can iron, the Sca­nia has been mak­ing friends of driv­ers and op­er­a­tors alike. And the wheels of the ru­ral econ­omy will keep on turn­ing.

Main pic: The com­pany op­er­ates sin­gle trailer, dou­ble road train and C-train com­bi­na­tions, all of which are pulled by Sca­nia prime movers 1: Driver Trevor Bale with a South

East Petroleum R620 Sca­nia truck 1

2: Farm de­liv­er­ies are a large part of the work, es­pe­cially dur­ing har­vest and seed­ing time

3: The Sca­nia R620 rum­bles north to pro­vide some much-needed har­vest fuel

4: Grant and Michelle Har­ris have owned and op­er­ated South East Petroleum since 1990 2

3

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