Rice farm on market heartbreaking for Scoullar

By Country News

There have many casualties in farming since the introduction of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan — but Deniliquin rice grower and Speak Up campaign chair Shelley Scoullar never thought she would be one of them.

Her passion for agriculture runs deep. It was instilled in her from an early age, growing up on the family rice farm. It was all she ever wanted to do and all she ever wanted to be — to grow rice and feed the world.

But she has made the heart-breaking decision to put her rice farm on the market and move on; to take her family and move away.

Another rural statistic.

It’s sad for the town of Deniliquin, which has lost another three children from its schools; sad for the community, which has lost the income her farm generated and spent at local businesses; and sad for the family which has been forced out by things out of its control.

Not that Mrs Scoullar was tapped on the shoulder by the bank; the decision was made by her family because the industry she is so passionate about has been decimated by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and poor water policy.

‘‘Over summer we decided to sit down and sum up our position.

‘‘Our family is very reliant on the rice industry — I obviously grow it and my husband Paul works off-farm at SunRice.

‘‘Managing water this season has been extremely difficult,’’ Mrs Scoullar said.

Like so many of our passionate farmers, Mrs Scoullar has upgraded irrigation infrastructure on her property so she can grow her crops as water-efficiently as possible. It was something she chose to do to guarantee her future.

‘‘System outlets an now designed to deliver high volumes of water over short periods rather than low volumes over long periods — managing that this year has been extremely difficult,’’ she said.

Add the stress and anguish of waiting for a NSW general security water allocation that never came, while the Murray River ran beyond capacity for 141 days and water was wasted flooding the bush and sent out to sea in South Australia, and Mrs Scoullar knew it was time for some serious thinking.

It has also been hard for her to continually cop the criticism of an industry she loves so much.

‘‘The rice industry has been condemned by people who have never even stepped foot onto a rice farm. We have come off the smallest rice crop since the millennium drought, and from my research probably the second-smallest in at least 50 years, and we still get blamed for the problems in the Darling. It is insane and so disheartening.’’

Contrary to what many people believe, rice does not use excessive amounts of water, especially when it is grown the right way and on the right soil type.

‘‘The habitat it creates is just amazing and the noise of the frogs can at times deafen you, they are so loud. Half the time it is the attraction of wildlife that rice supports, that makes it so enjoyable to grow.’’

Despite the circumstances of her leaving farming, Mrs Scoullar said she had been truly blessed for the past 12 years.

‘‘The first four years of owning our own farm were in drought working with my parents, in particular my father, and that has been a true privilege. Dad and I worked together but I managed my own farm and made all my own decisions.

‘‘When we first moved back to Deni we had a plan to gradually buy out my parents’ farm; however things have changed, it has become about economy of scale and we have reassessed our options for our future.

‘‘My parents were ready to retire; the changes in water policy and its impact on stress levels have made their decision to retire an easy one.’’

Mrs Scoullar maintains her farm is viable but said the changes in farming since the introduction of the basin plan meant the farmer needed to be able to read water markets, be a water and grain trader, and must also be prepared to be flexible with what they grew.

‘‘If rice could not be a main part of our farm planning, then we decided that the best thing for our future was to look at some other options.’’

The family is moving to the Albury/Wodonga area in July.

Mrs Scoullar remains positive there are many opportunities for southern NSW and northern Victoria farmers involved in food and fibre production.

‘‘We need stronger and more united advocacy. But we need not just farmers, we need community members, small business and councils all working together for a united cause.’’

And who knows, maybe that’s where we will see Mrs Scoullar in the future.