Mixed crop farmers future irrigation woes

By Sophie Baldwin

THE mixed farm owned by the Hare family at Tullakool (26km north of Barham) has a rock-solid track record of heavy lifting when it comes to feeding the country and supporting the economy.

With a normal water allocation and a normal year the property has consistently produced 5000t of rice, 6000t of cereal, 540 weaners and 1800 lambs.

But fronting up for its third year of zero allocation – and with a best-case scenario – the next harvest might reach 2000t of cereal and 220 weaner steers.

There will be no rice.

And no lambs.

Even worse, Darcy Hare has no confidence in the approaching season.

“Last year we were well set up with autumn rain and we had good crop establishment, everything was going well until we had no spring rain and no water allocation to finish things off and everything just turned to crap,” Darcy said.

He said you can have the best season start in the world, but spring is the make or break.

“We are geared to finish our crops with irrigation and until water gets back to below $200 a megalitre we have no confidence – if governments want to shut down one of the most productive areas of agriculture in Australia, they are certainly going about it the right way.”

From 1952 to 2001 the Hare family did not miss a single rice crop.

Since the introduction of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and in the past two decades they have missed nine years, including the past three consecutive years (the MDBP was implemented in 2012).

“Rice used to make up 70 per cent of our income and this would be a common figure across other farms in this area as well,” Darcy said.

“It’s a crop that suits our heavy soils and we always double crop and grow a good second crop out of the residual soil moisture – not to mention all the wildlife rice supports, including bitterns and brolgas, insects, snakes and frogs.”

Darcy said 2019 was so bad the family made the business decision to only gamble on 60 per cent of their normal cropping program – and this will be at dryland rates, including reduced fertiliser and seed applications because there is a distinct lack of faith in their ability to finish off the crops.

He said the family has currently sown 400ha of oats on the back of recent rain to use as cattle feed and the heavier paddocks are being left out of the rotation as they focus on lighter soil types.

“We will sow some forage canola to knock over a bit of rye grass and plant some barley because it performs better in dry conditions.

“But there will be no wheat this year.”

Darcy said the cost to sow rice is around $1800/ha – around five or six times the cost of wheat or barley.

“When we grow a rice crop, we use that many more resources, which goes to support local business and the community and from a paddock to plate perspective you can’t do any better than rice,” he added.

“It’s grown and packed in Australia and finds its way into our kitchens and onto our plates.”

Darcy said his personal business scenario is being repeated across farm after farm in the southern Riverina.

“If consumers in our country want to have access to quality Australian food on our supermarket shelves, the time has come to show your support and put pressure on our governments,” he said.

“The farming community needs your support – and really needs irrigation water.”

CEO of NSW Irrigators’ Council Luke Simpkins said the irrigation industry has a huge role to play in supplying Australians with food and holding up the national economy.”

“You can’t feed a nation without water.

“Aussie irrigation farmers produce 82.5 per cent of our veggies, 92.5 per cent of our fruit and nuts, 92 per cent of our grapes, 92 per cent of our cotton, 100 per cent of our rice, as well as most of our dairy and sugar cane.

“However, most irrigation farmers remain on a zero per cent water allocation, meaning they are without any access to water to grow food or fibre during a national crisis.”

Adding to the woes, SunRice CEO Rob Gordon said the 2019 rice crop at 54,000 tonnes was the second lowest on record and the current Australian crop due for harvest in coming months will be even smaller again.

“Australia is no longer self-sufficient for rice,” Mr Gordon said.