The mid-Richmond valley will convert 650ha of mostly fallow cane country over to rice this season, something of a first, and the future looks incredibly bright for this crop that fits well into existing sugar cane rotation.
The district’s first dedicated rice consultant, Steve Rogers, says aerobic, or dryland varieties of tasty Tachiminori and a typical lowland variety Langi are expected to produce an average of 7t/ha based on previous years’ results which have seen up to 10t/ha in times like last year’s summer which received 440mm and just 30mm rain for for a six week period leading up to panicle initiation which is a critical time for yield.
Considering the price at the moment is about $400/t, the return on investment is a positive one indeed and there is no reason at this stage to doubt the claim that next season’s crop will double as will the years’ following.
Mr Rogers says the cost to plant and produce, including sprays, harvest and shipping equate to around $1000/ha but can be down as low as $600/ha if best management practices are in place and producers own their own equipment. Where no crop is currently grown, for fear of waterlogging, upland rice might fill a void in an otherwise incomplete farming system.
The season’s first crop was planted October 29, on Owen Dory’s paddock at Swan Bay where 250-300 seeds per square metre have successfully sprouted with plants now tillering after 8mm rain.
Critical stages for aerobic rice production is the microspore stage prior to booting, about 90 days after planting, when the panicle is susceptible to climate-induced sterility if consecutive nights fall below 15C, so Mr Rogers recommends planting by mid November.
With so much peat soil on the mid-Richmond there is tremendous opportunity to develop this new industry – which was started by a grower named Gary Woolley with literally a handful of seeds at the turn of the millennium.
Mr Rogers says summer rice can work well as a break crop from cane, with winter legumes like faba beans a potentially perfect partner, providing up to half the required nutrient and helping considerably with weed control. If the market for faba beans fails they can be used as green manure.
The fibrous root structure of rice itself is also good as a soil conditioner, leaving pathways for water and air as the biomass decomposes.
“Growers say to me they are amazed at how easy it is to work their soil after a crop of rice,” Mr Rogers says.
All rice from the Northern Rivers will be processed at Fairy Hill Via Casino. Most of the grain will be stored at Mara Global’s facility at Shannonbrook.
Potential requires an open market
The opportunities that might flow from dryland rice grown on north coast peat soils could be lost over the border to Queensland if current market restrictions are maintained, says northern rivers rice consultant Steve Rogers.
NSW Minister for Agriculture Niall Blair is expected shortly to hand down recommendations on single desk rice marketing.
SunRice has repeatedly said a single desk export arrangement works in Australia’s favour when faced with big global competition but Mr Rogers points out Queensland rice growers are allowed to export. The mid-Richmond is just an hour from the border.
“It would appear the minister intends to roll over the existing arrangements and again appoint SunRice with the sole and exclusive export licence,” Mr Rogers said.
“At this stage the minister has not allowed any opportunity to meet with grower representatives from the Northern Rivers.”
“It is not viable to transport paddy rice 1200 km to mills in the Riverina. Farmers need to be able deliver their rice to local storage facilities.
“But until new players have the chance to export product grown on the North Coast there will be a lack of investment in the industry,” he said. “We need an export licence.”
Mr Rogers says the domestic market is a strong one but the volume of product coming out of irrigated paddy fields in the Riverina meant north coast growers were faced with a ‘David versus Goliath’ type scenario.