FOR now, the window is still ajar for southern rice growers.
But with little sign of rain – or extra allocations - on the horizon, there’s stiff competition for what meagre water remains in the Murray and Murrumbidgee Valleys.
Winter crops already in the ground are the priority for most growers, including Murrami mixed farmer, Murrumbidgee Food and Fibre president, and Ricegrowers Association of NSW advocate Debbie Buller, who is hoping there’s enough to finish off her canola, wheat, and feed oats – let alone get her rice in.
“We are the eternal optimists,” Ms Buller said.
“We always think we’re one day closer to rain, but at the moment it’s not looking good. Something needs to be done.
To buy water in as a temporary licence… the prices are insaneMurrami mixed farmer and NSW Ricegrowers advocate Debbie Buller
“All the water we’ve got is going to what we have in the ground now. Of course, rice could still be grown if it pays. But to buy water in as a temporary licence… the prices are insane.
“Even cotton growers - who are doing very well at the moment - are looking to wash their contracts away.”
Ricegrowers president Jeremy Morton said a lack of water in August was devastating, but added that SunRice were doing their best to encourage growers by putting out “pretty strong prices for contracts”.
Last week SunRice announced it will offer fixed price, hectare-based contracts of $500 per tonne for medium grain Reiziq and up to $650 per tonne for the specialty variety Koshihikari.
Mr Morton said he hadn’t heard much talk about growers selling the little water they had, but didn’t count it out.
“Maybe if they don’t need to hold it over to the autumn to get another winter crop going or getting a pasture going for livestock…but then you’ve got to think about the labour flow and the hiring and rehiring process, asking people to stick around,” he said.
“You’re seeing that with the SunRice contracts, which are pretty strong. They don’t want to be putting staff off over summer, they want to be using their infrastructure, and they have markets that they absolutely have to service.
“Ideally every market wants Australian rice, when production is not high in Australia it makes sense to target the higher value markets.”
Big competition for scarce, pricey water
But many agree high-value nut and horticulture operations in the south are likely the only ones who could to afford a cash splash on temporary allocations as summer creeps closer, with last year’s 620,000 tonne rice harvest likely to drop as a result.
“A lot of people haven’t even been able to wet up irrigated ground they would sew cereal crops into,” NSW Irrigators’ Council chief executive Mark McKenzie said.
“Now, there is a lot of carryover (water), I think even about 31pc in the Murray. But If there are people with high security water and are growing rice, I don’t know of them.
“You’re generally seeing that going into high-value horticulture and nuts”.
“People with grounwater are generally the only ones able to grow a significant commercial scale crop.
“It’s also a brave person who would plant dryland cotton this year.”
Mr McKenzie said the south being a source of subsidised fodder was also unlikely.
“The reality is, it is $350 to $370 per ML for general security in the south (up from long term average of $120 per ML), which means they are going to have to charge a lot for fodder,” he said.
“Most likely they are not got going to get input costs back if they don’t lift the price. If people could manage not to do that - it would be fantastic, but I would say it would be the exception rather than the rule.”
Any chance of a reprieve?
Back to rice, and Yanco-based Department of Primary Industries research agronomist Brian Dunn said it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
He sad the rice-sowing period could stretch into December if certain varieties and methods were prioritised.
“There is a window,” he said. “When water is more scarce, you have to make every megalitre pay.”
“Short season varieties might be something that comes into play, drill sowing, using the right paddocks. At the moment they’ve got another two months to weigh up their options.
“But given current allocations and conditions it is easy to say the rice crop would be smaller than last year.”
Ms Buller said she was trying to stay positive.
“(In the Murrumbidgee) we’re slightly better off than the Murray, but then again we’ve still only got 6 per cent (general security) allocation,” she said.
“But some of those winter crops are going to go down, which is ridiculous.”