Rice production is back in a big way for southern New South Wales growers, who are bringing in a huge harvest.
- Drought and restrictions on irrigation water meant a dire harvest for some NSW rice growers in 2020
- This year, the harvest is set to be 10 times that of last year, with 475,000 tonnes of rice expected to be harvested in the Riverina
- Sunrice, a major processor of Australian-grown rice, has employed 180 more people to help handle the harvest
When harvest wraps up soon, it is expected that 475,000 tonnes of rice will be harvested in the Riverina.
That is more than 10 times last season, when just 45,000 tonnes was grown, on the back of drought and very little irrigation water.
The Cremasco family are rice growers in the Murrumbidgee Valley, where they now have access to 100 per cent of their water allocation.
This time last year, it was just 6 per cent.
“It’s wonderful to have water to be able to produce as much as you can,” Steven Cremasco said.
“It’s a great thing here.”
Last year, the Cremascos stripped less than 300 tonnes of rice from 24 hectares. This year, they harvested more than 6,000 tonnes.
The improved season allowed them to employ an extra set of hands.
They are confident there is a future for Australian grown rice, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it really has opened people’s eyes to the importance of agriculture and the importance of being able to produce our own food in Australia,” Jackie Cremasco said.
Laurie Arthur, the chair of billion-dollar food company SunRice, agrees COVID-19 has changed the way consumers value food.
“COVID really demonstrated that with the vagaries of the world and shipping, et cetera, it’s really important to have a base, and rice is the preferred staple of a large number of our population,” he said.
Bouncing back after a grim year
At Mr Arthur’s farm near Moulamein in the southern Riverina, he has stripped 6,500 tonnes of rice.
Last season, he grew just 400 tonnes.
“This year, with the yields we’ve got, we believe we will produce about 4.4 million one-kilogram bags of rice for Australian and overseas consumers,” he said.
It’s a big change to last year’s grim harvest, which was nearly a record low on his farm and for the entire industry.
The turnaround in production comes after drought conditions eased and farmers in the Murray Valley were able to access 50 per cent of their water allocation, where last season they had an allocation of zero.
“We were very much in just sort of ‘hanging on by our fingernails’ mode last year,” Mr Arthur said.
New rice variety a ‘game changer’
Nick Morona, a rice farmer in the Murray Valley and the Murrumbidgee Valley, was among the growers that got to trial a new rice variety, VO71, this season.
He is impressed by the dwarf variety that is yielding around 14 tonnes a hectare, well above widely grown variety Reiziq, which averages about 11 tonnes.
“I do believe that this VO71 is going to be a game changer, just for the way it’s maturing so quick and yielding so high,” Mr Morona said.
Last year, Mr Morona harvested just 400 tonnes of rice from 40 hectares. This year, he stripped about 4,500 tonnes from 430 hectares.
“To get such good yields after a cold summer is just fantastic,” he said.
“We’re over the moon.”
Jobs boost for locals
To handle the huge harvest, SunRice, which has the monopoly on processing and marketing Australian rice, has employed 180 more people, mostly at its Deniliquin and Leeton mills.
It’s a welcome change for a company that was forced to shed more than 200 jobs in the recent drought.
SunRice’s global operations and agribusiness general manager, Tom Howard, said the company would continue to ramp up processing as the harvest rolled in.
This harvest will also help SunRice replenish shelves that were stripped bare at the peak of pandemic panic-buying.
In a good year, SunRice injects $400 million into the Riverina through payments to growers, employee wages, and salaries, with the company also spending big on its assets.
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline this Sunday at 12:30pm or on iview.