Neil Hollins has lived all his life as a farmer in the Wakool district,
which was one of the first areas to benefit from the development
of irrigation in the Southern Riverina. His family was involved in
first experimental growing of rice in the district on their property "Woorak" during
World War II.
The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview
recorded with Mr Neil Hollins in December 2004.
Our parents came from Gippsland, down near Dalyston - it was something
to do with the railways and the border railway agreement, to open
up blocks along the railway and Dad bought one of those blocks. They
had wool and I don't think they had fat lambs initially because
it was a dry area.
I know my father grew 400 acres of wheat before irrigation and
got 400 bags off it and that sort of nearly stonkered him. He
had 880 acres there which was the average size for a block at the
time. And looking at some records I had a look here, they grew seven
bales of wool.
Water changes the story
The irrigation started here, I think it was in 1936
or37. Initially they had a number of meetings locally
with landholders to see whether we wanted any irrigation
in this area, the Wakool area. And they had a meeting
at what they called Dick McConnell's Woolshed located
just quarter of a kilometre south of Burraboi. Prior to
that, they were going to put irrigation through Berrigan
and Finley who did not want it at the time and they put
the Stevens Weir in to supply Wakool.
There was a lot of big landholders didn't want water because
they'd have to be paying a water right, which they didn't
want. And the big landholders didn't like it, where the
small landholders were just hanging on by their teeth sort of thing
and they needed water to change the story.
When the water was brought in first they told the dad that he
only had 40 acres suitable for growing pastures on. That was
just around the house which was of a loamy nature, very loamy nature. The
rest wasn't suitable. So he laid that out into border
check. At the time we went from seven bales of wool to 130 I think
one year. But we didn't have rice in those days and mostly
Experimenting with rice
Experimentally, we began growing rice with the government
Dad cultivated the paddock which was of about three
or four acres and put the banks up. He had a John
Deere Model D tractor, steel wheels, the only one in the
area more or less. And he did all the earthworks
for the Water Commission at the time.
It was a success, although it was delayed in harvesting because
they couldn't find a machine to harvest it with. They did bring
a header down from Leeton, what they call a coffee pot type of header,
it had a big water cooling tank on the front. But it was late harvested
and there was a bit of loss. It was successful enough to continue
There was a lot of government people come to have a
look at it and checked it and an agronomist and that's
what started the major job out in Tulla, as it was called
then. They experimented on our farm for just the one year.
They commenced rice growing at Tulla the very next year. I
have a lot of literature covering it but I remember they had surveyors
there, crawling all over the place to get all these new earthworks
channels, a lot of flash new equipment that we'd never seen
before, because it was an Allied War Council project. They
procured equipment, being during the war – well, they found
them somewhere, I don't know – it comes from America
most of it, all the new equipment. A lot of channels had to be made
and what have you. And then they had multiple small tractors
to cultivate with and the same with equipment.
Rice growing and water use expand
Well, they grew three crops of rice [at Tulla] and
after that the whole job was folded up and the Water Resources
were worried that there was no use of water going on in
the district and it was not working at all, because no
demand on water, no people here to use it and they decided
that we'd see if we could get rice growing. And
they had a meeting up at the Niemur hall (which is no longer
there) and they asked people, "Anybody interested?" And
I think about five put their hand up they would grow rice
out of the hall full of people from the Wakool irrigation
And they offered 150 acres for three years. And after the
first year people from the MIA came down and we thought, "Well,
we'd better hop on the bandwagon here, it looks all right" and
they brought it back to the hundred acres then. So it was a
hundred acres for a while and then we got back to 50 acres, because
of the demand on channels and what have you.
There was no restriction on the use of water at that time. But
if a channel had restriction they would restrict the use of water
for rice. But you could use whatever you liked on pasture. In
our case we used to only be able to grow 40 acres [of rice] every
second year, after a while, because of the channel capacity. But
we could grow as much pasture as we liked.
Years ago, in the dry, it was just a meagre income you could make
off 800 acres in the dry, and with irrigation it changed the job
especially. More so with rice. I remember Dad used to
say it took him five years to get a pasture growing before rice. With
a crop of rice, you'd put a pasture in after rice, he'd
get it going the first year, as we know. Rice improved some
of the heavier soils out of sight.
The Agriculture Department were quite prominent in trying to help
us. There was still a lot of learning going on, as today. Yes,
it was – not as much as today I don't think. Today
we have access to a lot more information.
Initially [early 1960s] we could see the water tables coming up
and it was causing some land to go out and we put one or two bores
in, just subsurface bores, to drain it and that dramatically changed
the situation there. The Agriculture Department were trying
to grow plants – grasses that would handle salt – and
they just never made a start. So we just put a pump in, levelled
the ground and put a crop of rice in it and grew three ton of rice
off it and the next year we grew 20 bags of wheat, which was badly
affected with salt prior to that. It was only because we pumped
the water table down."
[Irrigation] raised our water tables, naturally and not because
of rice only, just water usage caused troubles. And then, with
this subsurface drainage, it's overcome the problem and it's
quite successful. It lowers the water table to a safe level and you
can carry out normal irrigation practices without any problem.
The more intense the irrigation, the more the water table seemed
to rise. There were some excessively wet years that aggravated
[Regional sub-surface drainage] was a bit of an unknown quantity. People
were, I think, hoping that it would work but ones that were badly
affected, well they were hoping it would overcome their problems.
But I was sure of that because one area we had put
a pump in to pump the water table down.
Irrigation water arrived at "Woorak" in 1936. I
remember the neighbour had a dam and the Dad used to bring water
for the house on a sledge with a horse. I pulled the posts
out of the ground one day and I said, "What were these posts,
they've all worn, all smooth, did you cut them or something?" He
said, "No, they're off my sledge".
To start with we only had – just rainwater and we had to
be very careful with the water that was used because there was no
irrigation. I remember Mum used to say we used all the washing
up water on the little trees around the place and initially we only
had two rooms to live in and dad built a verandah around the outside
and we used to sleep on the verandah. But the only way to beat
the mosquitoes was put your head under the sheets.
We had a wood stove that seemed to be always going and it was
always about 110 degrees in the kitchen on a hot day. No power,
naturally, to cool anything down and it was always pretty hot. Mum
liked to preserve and cook things up so that made the house pretty
warm. I remember we used to reckon it wasn't any good
having the back door on so we used to take the back door off to let
the house keep cool in the summer. Just had a fly wire door. Then,
after that we got a refrigerator, which was a kerosene one and reckoned
that was pretty good because prior to that we had the Coolgardie
safe and it just kept things mildly warm for you, not hot. When
you used the butter, you just tipped it out, you didn't cut
it out, in the hot weather."
We used to always have a milking cow and separate the milk and
make our own butter and Mum used to make soap and things like
that. I think we used to have to kill for meat pretty often because
you couldn't keep it prior to refrigeration. You'd
be pickling it and what have you and it was always a battle to keep
things fresh. Same as bread, you'd put it in the bread
safe and it would go like a brick after a while, because you didn't
have the baker come every day and some days I remember Mum used to
dowse it in milk and put it in the oven and heat it up and it was
better than fresh bread then, it didn't last any time. She
had a vegetable garden, more so when the irrigation came.
We had a petrol motor operating a bank of batteries and always
worrying about using little power because the batteries would go
down, come at night time and you could hardly see and you had to
get the motor going and – but when the bulk power come in,
that was a big help. You could have heaps of facilities running
from it. The electricity came through around about the early "60s
I think it was."
Phone services connected
I think it was in the mid-1940s we got what they called
a party line and we were about five or six on that line
and when you went – you got your call it would have
to represent a fixed number of rings. Might be four
rings and a short ring or three shorts and a long and that
would be your signal to answer the phone. You could ring
your neighbours as long as you liked but the post office
had to be manned at Wakool to get through to the outside. They
manned it daytime, not in night. But you could always
ring your neighbours.
Burraboi had a general store one time and it was disused and the
school was in that and we were going to school there when the rice
was being delivered at Burraboi and the Italian prisoner-of-war used
to be on the stacking and tallying the bags into the rail trucks
from the Tulla Rice Project. The others would be
out in the fields harvesting and what have you.
Prisoners of war growing rice
Well, one time we had a knock on the door and a chappie
comes to the door and he asks, "Where's the
camp?" And we said, "Keep going west" and
that was about another five mile I suppose. He had this
pink suit on, which they all had to identify them. The
suits were dyed uniforms really and the longer they were
here, the pink suits went to sort of very pale pink, after
washing, I guess.
We did visit the POW camp once and they had their church – a
church out there built and very tidy and neat premises which was
being done according to the Geneva Convention I guess and their food
that they had access to and all the other was way above what we could
buy in the shop most times, because the government were trying to
do the thing correctly, I guess."
The WC&IC I think were in charge of the running of the rice
growing project. They had a manager out there. The POWs
did have army personnel there, Australian army personnel to just
supervise them. There didn't seem to be very many of
them, just, you know, three or four of them. The POWs signed
an agreement they wouldn't escape apparently. The POWs seemed – initially
they were very happy to be out of the war I think. But as time
went on they got – you could see they were restless, they wanted
to get home. I think there was about 120, I could be wrong
there. After the POWs went, they had other people in to do
the job. I can't think who they were but they were government
Tulla soldier settlement
I think Tulla Station - they opened it up for soldier
settlement in 1948, when they started to commercially grow
rice on the same area. And then they progressed – extended
the area that they grew rice on, Tullakool.
It was a big day when we used to see new settlers come in here
because the nearest would be about five, six mile away and I remember
one time I had to go to the dentist and I had to ride five miles
with a crook jaw to ring up and get an appointment. But to
see settlement, it meant that we could have a bit better roads and
more facilities in the way of telephone and what have you."
Irrigation is everything. Some of these poorer, heavier
soils, especially out of west Wakool area, irrigation is the only
thing that will make them work for you satisfactorily. They're
not very productive when they're only for light grazing, I
would say, without water.
I have seen dramatic changes from the early days where we used to
use border check irrigation, we went to contour irrigation and now we're
going to these lasered layouts which are way ahead for irrigating and
for farming within the boundaries of the bays and water management. You
think you've got where you can go but apparently we can get more
efficiencies as we get more expertise onto the job.