Reach out - you're not alone

On a continent as dry as Australia, why would farmers grow rice?

That’s a question that’s been posed to Graeme Kruger more than once. Graeme is the Executive Director of the Ricegrowers' Association, a group formed in 1930 by rice farmers pooling their resources to build what is today the Australian owned and operated company, SunRice.

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“It’s a good question but I’d argue that rice, being an annual crop, is absolutely perfect for a dry continent like Australia because when there's water you grow, and when there's no water, you don't grow. It’s a crop you can switch on and off.

“And on top of that, Australian rice farmers have got one of the proudest histories of maintaining quality and being the most water efficient growers of rice in the world, using on average 50 per cent less water for the highest yields. I think that Australians can be very proud of what their rice farmers have been able to do.”

Graeme has been with the Ricegrowers’ Association for three years. Born and bred in South Africa, Graeme studied natural sciences and worked in National Parks in South African before moving to New Zealand, where he worked with the Department of Conservation before moving into the private sector. He moved to Leeton, NSW, after his wife Jackie relocated for a job in local government.

“We’ve always lived and worked in rural communities, and I have developed an immense respect for what farmers do and how they work in harmony with the environment and with nature – how they survive with the variable nature of what the climate dishes up for them.

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“Australia is a continent of harsh climate, and it has a cruel way of dishing up droughts, which seem to be becoming more frequent. Our rice farmers are certainly impacted by the drought, and on top of this there are low water allocations, which makes it even worse.

“You can have a drought where there's no rain and everything's dry. But you can also have a time where it's green, but there's no water in the storages, which is effectively an irrigation drought. We've got both now, and that makes it harder for farmers to be able to provide food and fibre for the nation. It also makes it harder to pay their bills. And that flows into the rest of the community.”

Right now, water allocations are incredibly low, with the Murrumbidgee Valley and the Murray Valley having zero per cent allocation. As a result, farmers are considering options for summer cropping and have to be quite creative with how they sustain and manage their businesses and their livelihood.

“Our farmers are hurting. They are rethinking how they run their businesses and, as an organisation, we have spent quite a lot of time developing training programs and resources to help them understand the water market and use the tools available to prepare for times of drought.”

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Giving back

Graeme has a personal philosophy that for every paid job he has, he needs to have two volunteer roles. Right now, he volunteers his time to CanAssist and Rotary.

“It’s something my mother bred into me. When I would come home from school as a child and complain, she would gently whisper, ‘just remember if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem’.

“From her kind words developed something that I've held dear to my heart ever since – if we don’t have people giving back or contributing to the wellbeing of the society, society will eventually spiral the wrong way.

“It's easy to point fingers at the government and other people and say, ‘you should be doing this and you should be doing that’, but I think it's more important to say ‘what can I be doing?’ and the level of engagement and volunteering that takes place in regional communities blows me away.

“During times like this, the mettle and measure of society gets tested, but we are seeing many examples of people coming together to help and support each other – donations, drought relief initiatives, the Hay Runners – and I think the most important thing is that we encourage people to reach out to their neighbours and family and friends, because they’re not alone.”

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Tips for coping

Graeme shares his tips for weathering the drought and times of low water allocation:

  • Put your hand up: There are a number of federal, state and local community initiatives people can access, including the Empowering Communities initiative which was used to fund a Rice Field Day attended by 250 people that covered topics of health and wellbeing. The first step is reaching out.

  • Use this time wisely: Focus on the things you know you can do, like taking the time to read about and understand the water market in Australia. The Ricegrowers’ Association has a water trading toolkit developed with members to help you maximize and future-proof your farming operations from drought as much as possible.

  • Be aware of other people: Understand that other people are also experiencing difficulties. There are great living examples of people who have found pathways out of tough periods. Look for them.

  • Give back if you can: When you're in a voluntary role, you meet people that give because they care, and that washes off on you. The more you give, the more that is returned to you. You don’t give to get, but it happens automatically.

The Australian Government resource Head to Health has digital mental health and wellbeing resources, for yourself or for someone you care about – visit headtohealth.gov.au.

 Anyone who is experiencing a mental health emergency (themselves or others) should call Mental Health Line 1800 011 511, Lifeline 13 11 14 or call 000.

Monica McInnes