The potential for a native rice industry in Australia’s far north has been talked about for decades, but has never been tested at a commercial level.
That is set to change, with trials of wild rice due to be planted near Darwin later this year.
Federal funding for the Future Food Systems CRC is expected to deliver $1.8 million for Charles Darwin University’s (CDU) project to develop a commercially-viable native rice industry.
CDU’s Dr Sean Bellairs said after years of studying native rice, it was a major step forward to now be looking at trials.
“So we’ve got a good background in terms of the ecological importance of the native rice, and we’ve done nutritional studies which found it’s an excellent product with some really interesting and unique food qualities,” he said.
“But what we don’t have is information on the agronomy of it.
“That’s what this research will be doing, getting to grips with those important technical issues that someone growing it commercially needs to know and needs to be able to do efficiently to make it economically viable.”
Ready to start planting
Dr Bellairs said trial plantings would initially take place on the NT Government’s Beatrice Hill and Coastal Plains research farms on the outskirts of Humpty Doo, but also near Fogg Dam on land owned by Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours.
“Fogg Dam is notorious perhaps for the failure of commercial rice back in the 1950s [the dam was built for the rice farm].
“But even last year I was able to go below the dam and there’s a beautiful field of native rice growing there, which we were able to harvest for our research purposes,” he said.
Dr Bellairs said the native rice, with its unique qualities and different colour, should fetch a premium price.
“This rice is an ancient grain, it’s a unique product with cultural significance to the Northern Territory,” he said.
“This won’t be sold like normal long-grain rice that you buy in a 2-kilogram bag from your supermarket, but rather little packets of 100-grams that are the same value as that 2-kilogram bag.
“So we’re really looking at a high-value, local product for tourism, gourmet restaurants and as a special addition to a meal.”
According to the CRC for Developing Northern Australia, which has launched a separate $505,000 project towards kick-starting a native rice industry, the sector has the potential to produce more than 1 million tonnes of specialty rice each year.
But what about the magpie geese?
One of the reasons rice previously failed in northern Australia was because of crops getting destroyed by hungry birds, especially magpie geese.
Dr Bellairs said native rice was an important food source for geese, but believed its value would allow for the grain to be grown under cover.
“We’ve carried out some initial pilot studies with tourists, showing little 100-gram packets, and people were prepared to pay $10 each for the cultural importance.
“If we’re getting that sort of return for it, then yes, it’ll be viable to grow it under wire cages [or netting].”
Dr Bellairs said the native rice was also tolerant of the fungal disease rice blast, which was responsible for wiping out the Ord Irrigation Scheme’s dream of a rice industry comeback in 2011.
Commercial varieties of rice continue to be trialled near Adelaide River by the White family at Mt Keppler Station.