The History of Irrigation
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George Rathbone

George Rathbone was still in primary school when his family moved from a dryland property at Burcher, in Central NSW, to Gogeldrie, near Leeton in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. By the time the Murray Irrigation Districts were established he was an experienced irrigator and rice grower, and moved south to share his irrigation expertise.


The following text is based on an edited transcript of an interview recorded with Mr George Rathbone in February 2005.

Key topics: rice growing, Department of Agriculture, share-farming, rice rotation, pasture, Lawson Syphon, farm equipment, rice harvesting, aerial sowing

All we had up at Burcher was a few dams with muddy water in them. That was the most water I'd ever seen. We moved across – my father and young brother they had a wagon with six horses, all our possessions that we'd left and I had some cattle and we had a pony and we walked them across to Gogeldrie, but I will never forget my introduction to irrigation. We crossed out of the dry area into the irrigation area at Wamoon and we crossed this big channel with all this fresh running water and willow trees. I said "this is me, I am never going back". That was our first introduction to nice green paddocks in January.
At the time I left school the War in Europe had finished and Dad had bought a farm at Griffith. We had rice, wheat and sheep, stock and that on the farm and they were the days before pastures and in those early years the chap we bought it off was a first World War ex-serviceman. He selected the block but he just grew rice every four years there was a rotation and he survived just growing rice every four years and that was it. A year or two later the Department of Agriculture put on a field day to show us how to drop pasture seed in the rice stubble and get it going and that took off like wildfire. We got the pastures going and really improved that country.

Moving south

So we share-farmed at home for up to about 1953 or "54, probably 1955, and then we came down here in 1956, just after the flood. It was cheaper country and at that stage there was a lot of people from Griffith and Leeton moving down here. When the Tullakool system got opened up a lot of those people were ricegrowers from up at Griffith and Leeton and the Holdens they'd moved down and they were friends of ours and didn't live that far away and they told us about all this land down here so we came down in 1954, we bought the block out. All we could find there was just a few pegs to where the channels were going to go. It was all waiting on the Lawson Syphon to be finished and then of course the wet weather in 1955/56 slowed down the channel work a bit."
The value of Lawson Syphon the people who thought up the scheme and laid out all the channels, it had a pretty far reaching effect, to put a tunnel under the river. I don't know in Australia whether there was any other projects like that, but the equipment you had in 1937 or so when they started would have been fairly crude on today's machinery. Certainly the people that engineered that and thought it up had a pretty good widespread image of opening up all this country for irrigation; it certainly brought a lot of people and business to the area."
Once the irrigation came through a lot of the country was divided up, people selling off 1,000 acres/1200 acres and that sort of thing. They tell us when the water went through Wakool area in 1937 I'm not sure of the date, a lot of those farmers didn't want the water at all but luckily it came anyway and they all made use of it after a while. Its developed a lot of infrastructure. Farmers at Wakool years ago were big fat lamb producers – all through water it certainly wouldn't have been without water.
We came down to a dry block just a bare paddock a bit of a house and a bare paddock; there was only a boundary fence and a house that's all there was. In 1956 we came down then we helped the Holdens, Clive and Hector, put in rice crops around Deniliquin we helped them there and then in late 1956 they had the channels finished. I think we put a crop in late 1956 the channels got to Bill Knight's or Alf Knight's place and we put a crop in there on the shares that was in 1956 and then by 1957 they had the water over the road on our place then."
Rice was the main crop and then you put wheat and sowed it down to pastures. In those days we had 50 acres of rice. You would sow it down and you would put a wheat crop, pasture in with the wheat and then you would have pasture for four to five years A lot of that has changed now of course but I still think the old rice pasture rotation had a lot going for it.
Farm equipment was very basic to start with. We had a second hand Massey Harris tractor and we had a single furrow plough and a Delver I made. Ralph Block out at Tullakool, he developed this gadget you put on the front of the delver with a ram on it and you close the ram up, that would make the Delver stand up the same with a single furrow plough. And then the international Little Genius came out they were a single 2 furrow plough we used them to plough the ground and still had the Delver on it. And then of course Farmors got into these banking machines and stuff we have today. But when Farmor first invented that 3 point linkage Delver that was a grade up from the old Delver we use to have. It started up with a handle on it and you lifted it up by brute force, muscle power. You would plough the banks then unhook and then hook on to your Delver and away you would go. Yes so it was a fairly slow effort putting up all the banks [for rice growing]. But it was all new layout.

Contract harvesting

We had an 8 foot HV Mackay header [for harvest]. We had them up at Griffith and of course I used to borrow Dad's to go contract harvesting so we had to pay. He bought this other one at a sale for 280 pounds and gave that to me to take and leave his at home. So we used to go contracting with that and you would have three horses in that, and you would bag [rice] out on the platform.
You would have someone on the platform and then you would stop every 10 bags and take the bags off and put them on the ground. The bag sewer would come along and sew the bags and then they would be loaded on to a trailer, then you would take them out and stack them out in the paddock and a truck would come and load them and take them in to Griffith or down here they had sidings all along the rail sidings. Bunaloo, Caldwell they all had sidings."
If the ground was wet we used to try and get a bit of straw to sap the ground; if you put the bags on the ground and the bottom of the bag got wet, what you'd call pigsty, instead of stacking them flat you would stand them on their edge and then you would stand them there and the wind could blow through them and they would dry out the ends of the bags where they were standing on the ground.
The fellow at the tester station had a little tester, a little tube about half an inch tube and he use to poke that in every bag; of course he knew how to go up the bottom of the bag if he thought it looked a bit wet or if they had any red of black grains in there he would knock it back.
I think the first year I did 11 crops I think with the old 8 ft header and as they got going there were a few locals bought headers. And a few of the sharefarmers had their own header, but a big percentage wouldn't have done.
In those days they had the old 8 ft header on 50 acres and you had to have a lot of men for the harvest. When you had the 8 ft header you had to do the bags on the platform and then cart them out. Then we bought a little 45 John Deere header so we could auger the grain from the header into bins pulled with a tractor; the bins were then taken out of the paddock and two men would fill the bags out of the bin. When the Ricegrowers Co-op built bulk drying sheds [around 1960] we could auger the grain from the carting-out bin straight into the trucks and carted it to the receival sheds. It was goodbye bags thank goodness."

Sowing seed by plane

When we first came down here it was the old combine [for sowing]. I remember we had a meeting here at Caldwell. Clive Holden explained the advantages of aerial sowing [rice seed is flown onto bays already filled with water]. It certainly took off at the start. Normally, after watering the top [of the soil] would just set like cement. The only rice that could get up was the plants that could find a crack to get out. The aerial sowing certainly suited this country down here - you had that hard ground to get the rice through and you had muddy water problems but we counteracted that and then, of course, we started putting gypsum out that cleared the water that solved the muddy water.
I don't think we'll get back to the growth and rice growing irrigation that we've seen. People have probably maybe looked at the other crops they will produce more income off a megalitre of water than rice. I think there is still a future providing we don't lose too much of our water. Not very often you get four years of drought so hopefully we'll get a few good years soon. It's still got a future but I think its going to change. You have to really look at what money you can get for your produce and for your megalitre of water. I hope its still got a future but I think it will be a lot quieter than what we've seen in the past. Probably to put it another way is better utilised, make the most out of your scarce commodity. That"s the way it will go!"

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