Family history of rice growing faces grim future

By Sophie Baldwin

Robert Browne has spent a fair bit of time shaking his head in disbelief over the past couple of years.

The Deniliquin mixed farmer’s family was one of the first to grow rice in the area in 1968, and the crop has formed a fundamental part of income and the business ever since.

The last crop of rice the Brownes were able to sow was in 2017, and the staggered payment they received over the next 12 months helped them make it through last season’s tough times.

But the payments have stopped now and with no rice crop in sight for 2019 due to a second year of zero allocation, Mr Browne is worried.

“This is a very sad situation and I don’t care who you are, we are all in for some pretty tough times,” Mr Browne said.

This season he watched his magnificent cereal crops wither and die.

“It is heartbreaking to cut crops that had the potential to make it to grain and sell them for hay into a market I don’t really know much about; the last time we cut hay was in 2007,” he said.

The family has always strived to farm as productively as possible.

“We have invested a lot of money to improve our farm and Australia has some of the best farmers in the world as far as irrigation efficiency goes and we can’t get a single drop of water,” Mr Browne said.

“My son has come home to work on the farm, and he has two sons.

“I have no idea what the future holds for him but without water we don’t have one.”

Mr Browne’s family settled in the area in 1910 and have been farming the land around Deniliquin ever since.

Family history tells him times have never been as tough as they are now.

Rice normally accounts for 45 per cent of income followed by cereals 30 per cent, fat lambs 15 per cent and a contracting business 10 per cent — effectively the business has lost well over half its income-producing potential in the past two years.

“In 1982 we had a severe drought, but we still ended up with a 60 per cent water allocation and rice went in,” Mr Browne said.

“Last year the dams were full, Victoria received 100 per cent allocation and we got nothing.

“Even in a year like this, we should have some allocation because that’s what the dams were built for — to drought proof our nation so we can grow food.

“And rice certainly feeds a hell of a lot of people.”

Mr Browne said it appeared the government was putting poor water policy and environmental commitments ahead of growing food.

“We just can’t seem to get through to the politicians, including our local member Sussan Ley, how important growing food is and how important it is to our rural economy and the nation.”

When he first started growing rice, Mr Browne said the region was thriving.

“We used to have the CSIRO in Deniliquin and we have lost the DPI extension service.

“Our shops and businesses are starting to close down and we are losing services as people struggle and start to leave the area and it is just heartbreaking.”