Peter Draper, Leeton has been a loyal rice grower for the last 45 years and along with his wife, Erin, was named SunRice Grower of the Year 2020 last month.
Mr Draper was completing his HSC when he put in his first rice crop back in 1974. Since then, there have only been two years where he has forgone growing the crop, once in the Millennium Drought and in 2018/2019 during the latest drought.
"It's a crop that feeds half the world," Mr Draper said.
"It's also probably the only crop you can grow as a monoculture, in Japan I've stood in a field where they've grown rice for over 1000 years."
But, in the Draper's cropping operation, rice is just one part of the puzzle, Mr Draper finding it a perfect fit to preceed their seed oats crop.
"We've been growing contract seed oats, which go up to Queensland for grazing, for 20 years now," Mr Draper said.
"They like being grown after rice because it does a beautiful job at eliminating weeds, so there's no black oats after flooding."
Mr Draper said rice also put organic matter and moisture back into the soil profile.
"A researcher once told me that the weight of the rice's roots are about the same as the weight of the stubble, so even if you burn the stubble to put a double crop in, you're putting an enormous amount of organic mass back into the soil," he said.
New irrigation layout
The rice industry has changed significantly since 1974 and the Drapers have been early adopters of efficiencies which can improve their operation.
"Probably our biggest change in the last couple of years has been the review of our irrigation layout, we've developed that into a rollover bankless channel system, designed by a local surveyor," Mr Draper said.
"We're growing rice on beds now which is a big change.
"The crop that follows rice, seed oats, can grow on the beds too so we don't have any water logging in wet winters.
"The other thing we don't need with these new irrigation systems is a shovel, they're using high flows so you can get larger amounts of water over big areas quicker.
"Our other summer crops, cotton and maize, can be grown more efficiently under that system.
"We're finding we're using at least 10 per cent less water on a single irrigation."
The new layout also allows for much longer machinery runs. "We've gone from four hectare paddocks to growing rice on up to 25ha, improving efficiency significantly."
Water saving varieties
The Drapers also reduce water use by growing new, short season variety Viand.
"Viand saves us around one megalitre per hectare and by moving to sowing on beds and delayed permanent water we can save another megalitre," Mr Draper said.
They are also trialling a possible replacement for Reiziq, the main medium-grain variety in Australia.
"We have 10 hectares in this season, it's being trialled across the industry and will go out to a wider grower group next year," he said.
We're finding we're using at least 10 per cent less water on a single irrigation.
The Drapers have embraced the use of precision agriculture, particularly when it comes to applying variable rates of nitrogen.
"Rice can be sensitive to having too much nitrogen, so we've got to be careful and reasonably precise if we can there," Mr Draper said.
"We put our main application of urea on when we go to permanent water.
"It is applied at variable rates based on land forming maps, indicating where the soil has been leveled.
"For example, where we've taken topsoil off to fill in hollows we will need to put extra on the cut areas.
"We also use yield maps based on header data and SunRice's NIR nitrogen tissue test and Normalised Difference Vegetation (NDV) Index maps."
The other half of the Draper's partnership is Peter's wife Erin.
Since retiring as a teacher at Yanco Agricultural High School, Mrs Draper has taken on an active role in the rice industry. She has served as secretary for the Ricegrowers Association's (RGA) Yanco branch, is a member of the RGA Central Executive and was recently elected to its board.
Mrs Draper said she had little knowledge of the rice industry growing up, but has certainly learnt a lot over the last 40 odd years with Peter.
"I came from a dry area farming background, my parents had wheat, sheep and cattle down in the Mallee," Mrs Draper said.
"It was only when I met Peter at university that I realised we even grew rice in Australia."
Rising to challenges
Mrs Draper said this year's improved water availability had buoyed the industry after a difficult few years.
"While the drought does seem to have given us a reprieve, water is still going to continue to be the Achilles heel to the industry and we hope common sense can come to fruition now the rivers are flowing again," Mrs Draper said.
"The rice industry has been around for a long time now, it has had challenges in the past but we will continue to rise to those challenges."
The Drapers plan to put in at least 60ha of rice this year, a jump from the 25ha they managed on very low water allocations last season.
"Now that we do have water we're keen to ramp back up our production," Mr Draper said.
"This year we've only had three spare paddocks because we have a big winter crop in, so we've still got a lot more rice going in than last year but we're not back up to where we have been."