Speaking at our February Stock and Land session, he said that towards the end of that 35 year period in 2005, much more expensive irrigation water, was severely depleting the area grown to the water thirsty crop.
Brian said after stints as a teacher and with BHP in the 1960s, he decided to become a farmer. To that end he bought a meat chicken farm on the Mornington Peninsula but with the aim of generating funds to buy a bigger farm.
When he had maximised the poultry farm’s earning potential, he sold it and in 1970, bought what became a 2400ha part irrigation farm between Moulamein and Balranald.
Brian said at that time, the big farmers in the Riverina tended to be graziers of livestock, while it was farmers on the irrigation channels like him, who tended to grow crops like rice, wheat and even cotton. Others were dairy farmers.
To gain an initial 50 acre permit for rice, it was necessary to have soil tested for water holding capacity. Eventually the Vials grew up to 200ha of rice a year, but because the crop needs up to 10 megalitres a hectare and the current water price is sky high, son Leigh currently running the farm, has not grown rice this year. He put his limited water supply onto pasture through a centre pivot and that finished a mob of lambs, which in fact topped a Swan Hill market. Leigh has described the Riverina as “rice growing heaven”.
Brian’s partner Andrea, said that because rice paddocks were artificial wetlands for six months of the year, huge numbers of local and migratory water birds descended on paddies. Ducks and swans were the problem visitors, despite Sydney bureaucrats at one time saying swans did not eat the stuff. But following the discovery that a purposely shot swan’s stomach “was absolutely chockers with rice,” authorities issued the necessary permits for growers to shoot up to five swans, she said. “That was usually sufficient to move the rest on”.
Brian said they used to encourage local and Melbourne shooters, to discourage the nightly duck invasion, so the predators moved to someone else’s paddy. Parties of Italian shooters were keen and targeted galahs and rabbits, if ducks were scarce.
Rice cannot be grown in consecutive years on the same paddocks, so with a soil profile substantially full of water, it has become common to sow wheat on rice stubbles almost as soon as the rice is harvested. In wet years, constantly unbogging tractors and drills, was a decidedly “character building experience”.
He said the big years for rice – up to 1.7 million tonnes worth $1.4 billion in the 1990s - would not return while water was selling for up to $500 a megalitre. Those growing some rice are largely choosing the variety Koshihikari which fetches premium prices in Japan.
In the 1990s, the two co-operatives, Murray Goulburn and the Rice Growers Co-operative, competed to see which was the biggest exporter of containers through the Port of Melbourne. “But both have changed significantly: Murray Goulburn has been taken over by a Canadian dairy company and Ricegrowers Ltd is about to list their B class shares on the ASX. Active growers will still control the company as A class shareholders, Brian said.
He foresees further difficulties for Ricegrowers because it’s A class shareholders are the only ones able to vote on the body’s future. “That means they have to be active growers producing at least 200t over two years. But with the drought it is tricky being an active grower,” he said.
Brian was elected to the Rice Marketing Board and the Ricegrowers Co-operative in 1993 and retired in 2005. Now son Leigh is a Ricegrowers Ltd director.