Article – Rice crops replace cattle as Northern Territory pastoralist diversifies30 May 2014
24 May 2014
One of the world’s staple grains could prove a diversification winner for northern Australia, the Northern Territory Government and growers agree.
Pastoralist turned rice grower Bruce White planted seedlings three weeks ago his cattle property, Mt Keppler Station, 100 kilometres south of Darwin, and is already starting to see shoots popping up.
He started planting on the flood plain two years ago, and while there were some challenges – like rogue crocodiles and birds – the crop grew well.
“We had all this country that was virtually useless for cattle, and not relying totally on the cattle industry on our property,” he said.
He said he had been selling the rice harvest to a local cubing plant to make nutrient-rich cattle feed.
He had then been bringing his own cattle onto the plain to graze on the leftover stubble.
The crop has been a valuable secondary income, particularly during tough times with the live export trade.
“I think it has got a future up here: There’s thousands of hectares in this area of this flood plain country which is not very good cattle country,” Mr White said.
Diversification is seen as crucial if northern Australia is to develop further.
It has also been made easier with recent changes by the NT Government to its Pastoral Land Act.
But rice has had it is share of spectacular failures, going back as far as the 1960s, when an American movie maker with big dreams bought up large tracts of land.
The scheme fell over and stigmatised rice-growing as an industry.
While some of those big challenges remain, the dry season planting is paying off, with fewer bird plagues, consistent weather and higher yields.
Mr White already has companies wanting to buy the harvest, which will take place in four months.
“We have to make sure we have a suitable variety that will grow in this area,” he said.
“We’ve had New South Wales farmers, and they’ve looked at what we’re doing, and they say, ‘Oh, shivers, this is pretty interesting, lots of problems down there we’ve got you haven’t got’.”
Mr White does not see Australia’s north as the next food bowl, but he does believe rice has a future in this part of the world.
Jasmine rice a good rotational crop: expert
Mr White wants to see production expanded, but says there are obstacles that first need to be overcome.
“We need dams… so we can irrigate large areas get other people interested… it’s alright talking about infrastructure and all this stuff, but some money has to be spent,” he said.
A few hundred metres down the road at the Department of Primary Industries’ Tortilla Flats research farm, preliminary trials of jasmine rice are showing great promise.
The senior farm research manager, Bruce Sawyer, said he could see rice expanding in production.
However, like most agriculture in Australia, to balance out labor, transport and production costs, farmers need to be growing high-yield and high-value rice varieties, he said.
“Can’t grow these fragrant ones in southern Australia; they need the tropical conditions to grow, so it would be not just for export Australian market,” he said.
“We import all our Australian jasmine rice so some good possibilities there.”
He said that in the longer term, rice could fit in well as a rotational crop.
“There’s crops like soybean and others you can rotate with rice and go really well in these conditions,” Mr Sawyer said.
He said the focus on northern development had helped encourage research for not just rice, but all types of industries.
“The good old words of the north, there’s potential; rice fits in really well in this district with cattle production, and the stations all have a lot of flood plain country, and the flood plains here on duplex soil are poor for grazing,” he said.
“So basically, cattle producers aren’t getting anything out of them.
“If you can add in something like rice, which is ideally suited to the soil and climate, you can get a crash return and really good grazing from the cattle, so it’s diversifying the operations and potentially and industry.”
Courtesy of ABC News