The History of Irrigation
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Neil Hollins

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.


Key topics: Arrival of irrigation, experimental rice growing, rising water tables subsurface drainage, domestic life, prisoners-of-war, Tulla, soldier settlement, irrigation layouts, soils.

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 pasture.

Experimenting with rice

Experimentally, we began growing rice with the government in 1943.
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 the trials.
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 district.
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.

Subsurface drainage

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 it.
[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.

Domestic life

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 employees.

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.

Neil Hollins


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