Rice industry condemned, Scoullar calls it quits

By Sophie Baldwin

Speak Up Campaign chair Shelley Scoullar has watched the devastation left in the wake of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and poor water policy but she could have never imagined her farm would become another rural statistic. 

THERE have many casualties in farming since the introduction of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan but Deniliquin rice grower and Speak Up Campaign chair Shelley Scoullar never thought she would be one.

And that’s because her passion for agriculture runs deep.

It was instilled in her from an early age, growing up on the family rice farm.

It was all she ever wanted to do and all she ever wanted to be – to grow rice and feed the nation.

But she has made the heart-breaking decision to put her rice farm on the market and move on. To take her family and move away. To become, sadly, another rural statistic.

Sad because Deniliquin has lost another three children from their schools and the community has lost the income her farm generated and spent at local businesses.

Shelley’s family has been forced out by things beyond their control.

Not that Shelley was tapped on the shoulder by the bank, she said the decision was made by her family because the industry she is so passionate about has been decimated by the controversial basin plan and poor water policy.

‘‘Over summer we needed to sit down and sum up our position,’’ she said.

‘‘Our family is very reliant on the rice industry, I obviously grow it and my husband Paul works off farm at SunRice – managing water this season has been extremely difficult.’’

Like so many of our passionate farmers Shelley has upgraded irrigation infrastructure on her property so she can grow her crops as water efficiently as possible. It was something she chose to do to guarantee her future.

‘‘Our outlets have been designed to deliver high volumes of water over short periods rather than low volumes over long periods — managing that this year has been extremely difficult,’’ Shelley said.

Add the stress and anguish of waiting for a NSW General Security water allocation that never came, while the Murray ran beyond capacity for 141 days and water was wasted flooding the bush and sent out to sea at South Australia, and Shelley knew it was time for some serious thinking.

It has also been hard for Shelley to continually cop criticism of an industry she loves so much.

‘‘The rice industry has been condemned by people who have never even stepped foot onto a rice farm,’’ she said.

‘‘We have come off the smallest rice crop since the millennium drought, and from my research probably the second smallest in at least 50 years, and we still get blamed for the problems in the Darling. It is insane and so disheartening.’’

Contrary to what people think, rice does not use excessive amounts of water, especially when it is grown the right way, on the right soil type.

‘‘The habitat it creates is just amazing and the noise of the frogs can at times deafen you, they are so loud,’’ Shelley said.

‘‘Half the time it is the attraction of wildlife that rice supports, that makes it so enjoyable to grow.’’

After the rice is harvested it makes an ideal place to grow an alternative crop.

Growing rice has never been just about making money for Shelley, it also came with a large amount of pride.

Deniliquin was once a thriving rural area renowned for its ability to grow rice, providing it has water of course.

‘‘During the latter years of the millennium drought, the southern hemisphere’s biggest rice mill at Deniliquin was closed because there was insufficient crop to mill. As a consequence, we were unable to provide food for 20 million people a day throughout the world, including developing countries and that is a real tragedy.’’

And that tragedy is continuing in the dairy industry, as it hits breaking point and farmers are exiting in droves.

Despite circumstances, Shelley said she has been truly blessed for the last 12 years.

‘‘The first four years of owning our own farm were in drought working with my parents, in particular my father and that has been a true privilege. Dad and I worked together but I managed my own farm and made all my own decisions,’’ she said.

‘‘When we first moved back to Deni we had a plan to gradually buy out my parent’s farm, however things have changed and now property prices and water prices have increased we have reassessed our options.

‘‘My parents were ready to retire, the changes in water policy and its impact on stress levels have made their decision to retire an easy one.’’

Shelley maintains her farm is viable farm but the changes in farming since the introduction of the basin plan mean you need to be able to read water markets, be a water and grain trader, and you must also be prepared to be flexible with what you grow.

‘‘If rice could not be a main part of our farm planning, then we decided that the best thing for our future was to look at some other options,’’ she said.

That now includes moving to Albury-Wodonga.

‘‘I love agriculture and want to stay involved, especially in advocacy for our world leading farmers. My priority will be settling the family in (in Albury-Wodonga) and then looking at options about how I can get back into agriculture.’’

Shelley said the last harvest was an extremely emotional time.

‘‘We have loved growing rice and it is sad, very sad, that we won’t be growing it any more. We wanted to be a part of the community for a very long time, we wanted to put our kids through school here, but that is just not the way the dice rolled.’’

Shelley said poor water policy had divided communities with the simplest trick in the book — divide and conquer.

‘‘Sadder still is it is for all the wrong reasons, for boating regattas in SA,’’ she said.

‘‘The purchase of BlueSky water in the Northern Basin has left our region to pay the biggest price, not only because we must deliver the actual volumes to SA, but our water is real water which has been recovered and for far less value.’’

But Shelley remains positive there are many opportunities for Southern NSW and Northern Victorian farmers involved in food and fibre production.

‘‘We need stronger and more united advocacy. But we need not just farmers, we need community members, small business and councils all working together for a united cause.’’

Who knows — maybe that’s exactly where we will see Shelley in the future; working together (whatever community it might be) for a united, powerful cause.