Past the comfort zone and back

By Shelley Scoullar

Last Sunday morning as I prepared myself for a trip to Brisbane to present and participate in the International River Symposium a number of doubts flooded my mind.

I said to my husband, “what do I think I am doing – what right do I have? A farmer and a mother of three taking off for 3 and a half days, leaving my responsibilities behind to attend a conference full of academics, scientists and bureaucrats”. But in the car I jumped and off to Brisbane I went. Despite thinking that I am crazy most of the time, I pushed on and I am so glad that I did.

For two and a half days I listened to presentations from Australians and International speakers, networked and met people in between sessions, and had my 15 mins of glory. I learnt that compared to the international river scene the Murray is certainly not in the crisis that extremist groups and politicians would have you believe. Sure, we need to work to keep the river healthy, but there are so many alternatives to “just add water” and devastating rural communities along the way.

The highlight of the trip though was spending half an hour at the Gala Dinner with a board member of the International River Foundation, the organisation who puts the conference together.

“You can’t grow rice in Australia,” was his reply, and one we hear often, after I introduced myself and what I do. So I told him my story, why we should grow rice in Australia – how efficient we are, the climate reduces disease using less chemicals, the habitat it provides, the moisture in the soil for the next crop, the people we employ, the 50 countries we export to; I could keep going.

I explained the allocation of water in the Murray system, the fact that there are water entitlements and people will grow what works best for them and their farming system. They will grow what is profitable for them. I explained the Barmah choke and why it is collapsing, how the capacity has reduced from 8,500 megalitres a day to 8,000 megalitres a day (or 3,200 Olympic swimming pools), and that South Australia has a minimum amount of water allocated to them before anyone gets a drop. By the time I finished he had a greater understanding and was surprised that rice growing in Australia was not like he thought it was. Even if I only educated one other person, it is one more person, who at the next dinner party, or board room meeting who might think twice before assuming that communities and farmers are reckless in their use of water.

It was a privilege to have the opportunity to participate in this international conference, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to attend. I still think that I am loopy for the amount of unpaid hours I spend trying to convince those who have not had the opportunity to experience what I do every day.

Our farmers and those who have lived and breathed the river systems their whole lives hold the untapped power to achieving outcomes that benefit everyone. Every day, I witness the observation and problem solving skills of those on the land, people who must generate solutions to keep their business going – to fix that tractor, repair that spray rig, patch that fence, help that sheep, turn that pump, the list goes on. And that is what drives me to push past my comfort zone, because I believe in the people on the land, the communities they form and the common sense they have in difficult situations. Their story needs telling.