Wednesday, 27 August 2008


Well I’ve yelled at the radio one too many times, read too many letters to the editor all with the same mantra ‘don’t buy Australian rice!’ The media continue to beat up this issue with no facts pitting one community against another. ‘The lower lakes will be saved if we don’t grow rice, send the water stored to SA….and on and on it goes.’ Yes I know I have Murrumbidgee water running through my veins and a heritage that includes mixed farming on an irrigated property that included rice in its rotation but I’m fast seeing how wars begin when I see one community that is hurting being pitted against another that is also suffering while our so called leaders have done nothing for year and now when it reaches crisis point still wont make real decisions.
In my experience of living in SA for around 30 years is that they have no clue where rice is grown in our country. When explaining my background most thought I came from NT, Queensland and with the radio it now seems rice is grown somewhere on the Darling River WRONG. Check out the map.

When considering this area it helps to know the history as well as the geography (not taught in SA schools) After a devastating drought in 1902 the NSW government proposed a water conservation and irrigation in the Murrumbidgee Valley, it was approved in 1906 as the ‘Barren Jack and Murrumbidgee Canals Construction Act ‘and the scheme to turn the water inland was launched. The scheme is normally referred to as ‘The MIA’ and covers 182,000 hectares.
Leeton was the first Irrigation towns developed in Australia in 1913 and is the heart of SunRice. Leeton has a population of 12,000 and Griffith the other main town in the Murrumbidgee irrigation Area, now a rural city has a population of 24,000. Both these towns where designed by Walter Burley Griffin and feature the distinctive radial town design.
The farms are generally small family enterprises. Horticulture is based on stone fruit, citrus and increasingly wine grapes. Mixed farms were based on a range of crops including wheat (soft for biscuit) oats, barley, rice, sorghum, fat lambs, beef cattle, pigs, top quality pasture hay. Our farm was 200 acres, grew all these crops. Rice was grown on a 5 year rotation and each farmer was allowed to grow 60 acres. (This amount sometimes changed)
Drought was a common part of life, we also had a non irrigated property 10 miles down the road that grew a range of cereal crops depending on the season and ran merino sheep. We spent a lot of time carting water to these sheep during droughts. Our house ran on rainwater and by the end of spring each year, my father would remove the handles from half the taps in the house. Our bath water came from a dam and you could never see the bottom of the bath unlike town water. So although it was an irrigation property there was a strong awareness of drought and water conservation unlike most who grew up in towns and cities during the 60s and 70s.

Ok that was then what about now. Last summer my mother told me did not water her garden once because the farmers had no water why should she be allowed to have a garden. The town has a 50% water allocation and Stock and domestic have a 40% allocation (Water for farm house and stock only) although some rice was grown this year mainly with underground water.

The most devastating results of this crisis which has been bad for at least 8 or so years is the loss of diversity. Many of the mixed farms have been sold for or converted to wine grape production. Total monocultures! Although I enjoy a glass wine I cannot understand the push to cover every piece agricultural land with vineyards and they are all irrigated! Many years ago when I was young and the MIA wine growing area was starting we were told that this wine along with those from the SA’s Riverland and Victoria’s Sunraysia was in some way inferior because it was irrigated now it seems all vineyards are irrigated. But it’s easier to convince the powers that be with a bottle of wine than a sack of rice or box of oranges.
There are no easy answers , over the years water efficiency , conservation method and yields have all improved and at present there are many ongoing research projects being carried out both here and overseas as this is a world wide problem. MIA rice growers SunRice is still the most efficient water to yield growers in the world and grow the only disease free rice in the world.
Its time to work together and stop pitting one community against another. We should support all our farmers and their communities otherwise the countryside will be empty and the cities crowded .




A future seedsavers event may be veiwing 'Rice growing in the Riverina '


Ting said...

Thanks Deb. I am looking forward to the discussion of 'Rice growing in the Riverina.' in our seedsavers' meeting. I would like to know more about rice growing in Australia.

When I was a kid, there were rice paddy not far away from our house in Taipei!(Though now there are all factories)
In Taiwan, organic farmers are standing up asking Taiwanese people to eat more rice. Due to many reasons, many Taiwanese people now don't eat enough rice anymore.(People eat more wheat, which we don't grow.)

Then I came back to Adelaide.Books I read written by the greenies told me not to eat rice. I felt very guity to eat rice. How a confusing world.

It would be good to understand more about this issue.

Kate said...

As you say Deb, there are no easy answers. It is dreadful that the small, diverse farms are being replaced by monocultures, and grapes in particular. I don't agree with growing rice or grapes on the Hay Plain, as they are now doing, which is basically a desert. Rice should be grown in appropriate climates, as should everything and I can't understand why the whole system has been allowed to falter and huge water licenses are given to monocultures in preference to the small farmers,like your family, the communities and the cities.

It is not wrong to expect to have a garden, especially a food garden. It is, however, wrong to waste huge amounts of water in desert areas on unsuitable crops.

I won't buy Australian rice because I can't tell if it has been grown somewhere like on your family's property, or somewhere ridiculous like in the desert on some huge monolith of a place.That's the only way I can make a stand on this issue, unfortunately.

Deborah Cantrill said...

Excuse me Kate BUT its NOT the Hay plains. The MIA is a different area with actual controls on water use and a long history.The hay plains irrigation appeared in the early 1980's ! They grow lettuce there which is worse & I here the ABC market report mention them often as a good buy! For whom!! At this time early 80's areas on the Darling river started to grow irrigated crops & water licences began to be given out by lollies in non irrigated areas.
With your logic the only food YOU should grow in your garden is what grows on natural rainfall.If there is no irrigated agriculture then SA does not need water for farms in the riverland or lower lakes so look forward to everyone craming into the city & using water unproductivly.
In actual fact rice produces more Kg per litre of water used than most other crops. When the water comes off the rice it is used to grow pastures.

Kate said...

Sorry if I wasn't clear Deb but I mean that it is crazy to grow it on the Hay Plains as opposed to the MIA, where it is obviously done well. I was agreeing with you.
Irrigated crops are necessary in SA but some need less irrigation than others. And the amount of water required to grow a crop should be a criteria to consider when issuing water licenses.

Deborah Cantrill said...

Guess what Kate, rice is not grown on the hay plains it was, for a short while in the 1990's by John Elliot's company but I think it was a scam to rip shareholders off & it went broke. From my reading of late many 'traditional' rice growning areas are also experiencing water shortages and water competition from other crops and people and polution. China & India for example but there could be more.Worth checking where it actually comes from eg SunRice jasmin rice at present comes from Thialand.