The Natural Rice Co.
The Natural Rice Co. (NRC) is a unique enterprise not just in the Northern Rivers, but in a national context too. This Kyogle-based food business is one of only two Australian companies that supplies rice to major supermarkets, and indeed the only company that supplies the environmentally-friendly, increasingly popular dryland rice (rice grown without irrigation). It’s fair to say NRC has carved out a special niche for itself, and enjoyed ongoing success, since its launch in 2015.
The company – founded and directed by Nelson Green, who’d previously built his family’s business Green’s Foods and listed it on the Australian Stock Exchange – initially emerged at that time to act as a connection between small rice growers in the local area, and the large commercial rice sector.
“None of the small businesses were able to supply commercial amounts of rice,” says manager Steve Rogers (a grower himself), “so NRC was created to commercialise the rice industry in the Northern Rivers.
“NRC saw a great opportunity on the Northern Rivers due to the fact that the rice grown in this area is not irrigated, which gives great environmental benefits and also a point of difference in the Australian rice industry. Due to climatic and agronomic reasons, our dryland rice cannot be grown anywhere else in NSW, which makes the Northern Rivers unique.”
NRC went from working with seven growers in its first year to contracting over 30 today – enough to have established the Northern Rivers Rice Growers Association (NRRGA).
This success is all the more impressive when you consider the number of curveballs that have been thrown at NRC since its inception – and not just floods, fires and pandemic. That other Australian company that supplies rice to supermarkets, a large organisation based in the Riverina, has what essentially amounts to a monopoly on the Australian rice industry. And it is this environment that NRC entered (and disrupted). Dryland rice, Steve says, “gives us that point of difference and allows us to compete in the domestic market.” Yet that other company remains the only Australian company allowed to export rice; NRC can only trade domestically.
Those environmental credentials are at the heart of NRC. Rice that is traditionally grown in the irrigated paddy system can use, Steve says, 200,000 Olympic swimming pools of water per year – dryland rice therefore saves water on a huge scale. The paddy system also produces large amounts of methane.
“Studies have shown that the only way to reduce methane is to grow [rice] without any submergence in water. So not only are our growers saving our rivers by not irrigating, but they are also reducing the impact from rice on our climate.
“We are a member of the Sustainable Rice Platform, an international body created to improve rice’s impact on the environment.”
The Covid-19 pandemic saw a significant spike in rice sales as everyone rushed to stock their pantries – something that benefitted NRC. The business was, however, hit hard by the floods of February 2022. “We lost 70 per cent of our crop,” says Steve. “With stocks we had on hand, we were able to maintain our existing clients but could not capitalise on some new opportunities in the market.
“Farmers are resilient and we supported them the best we could through the tough time, so they are ready to plant the new-season crop in November. The loss of production also meant that we had delayed some major capital work for 12 months.
“A lot of growers lost everything in the recent floods, not just crops but houses and machinery. It’s their ability to rise above and continue farming that we believe shows resilience in the community and gives us the confidence to continue to invest in our rice industry. Having so much interest from local growers to supply us makes us feel we are on track with our business.”
NRC currently employs five people at its Kyogle site, with plans to double that during 2023. A new warehouse and rice mill is also on the cards for the next two years. The company extends its reach into the local community by sponsoring the Kyogle Turkeys rugby league team and many events, while it also enjoys a research partnership with Southern Cross University (SCU) that focuses on agronomics and variety rice breeding.
“Our main ambition is to be Australia’s number one environmentally sustainable rice company, supplying low-emission, non-irrigated rice into pantries all over Australia,” says Steve. “Hopefully one day the government will allow us to also have an export licence and put Northern Rivers rice in pantries all over the world.”