Our tallest poppy bows out

TASMANIA’S poppy industry has come a long way in the past six decades and no one has enjoyed watching that journey more than Keith Rice.

Mr Rice started working with the industry almost by accident in 1986. Since then, he has played a vital role in representing the industry and growers.

Now, Mr Rice, who is the executive officer of Poppy Growers Tasmania, is handing over the reins to Howard Nichols and will officially step down from the role in January.

While Mr Rice has thoroughly enjoyed his time working with poppies, his career in the early days was focused on industrial relations.

He worked for the State Government in industrial relations before taking on a role with the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association’s industrial association doing work in agriculture, horticulture and viticulture right across the state.

He was also soon handed responsibilities for the TFGA’s work with the pig, poppy and forestry sectors.

“I didn’t apply for a job in poppies, I came in through my professional training in industrial relations and poppies was an afterthought,” he said.

At that stage, the poppy industry was just starting to gain momentum with about 2000ha being grown in Tasmania.

“The big thing from my point of view is how much we owe in Tasmania to those early pioneers of poppies,” he said.

In the beginning, Mr Rice said the idea of growing poppies was not appealing in many places.

“No one else in Australia or New Zealand wanted to touch this crop, but the Tasmanian Government took it on, and the farmers got behind it and embraced it and people from the department as well,” he said.

“The innovation that’s come from the companies and the research and development and their chemistry processes has been fantastic.”

In the early days, Mr Rice said increasing alkaloid levels in the crops was a priority.

“We were still getting less than one per cent alkaloid content and probably about .7 per cent was the average at that time,” he said.

“Now, 3 per cent is considered not all that good.”

Improvements to on-farm crop management also had a huge impact.

“When I started probably less than 10 per cent of the crop was irrigated,” Mr Rice said.

“Now you wouldn’t get a contract unless it’s irrigated.”

Mr Rice said developments in machinery technology including air drills and spraying to sow and manage the crop have also made a big difference.

Advancements in harvesting and transport equipment with purpose-built harvesting machines and sealed poppy bins had also been something Mr Rice has enjoyed seeing.

“It’s been a natural progression of this industry, the pursuit of excellence all the way along from those early pioneers,” he said.

“This was a new crop and the only place in the southern hemisphere that was growing it. So, we didn’t have any technological or scientific basis to establish the crop.

It all had to be invented down here to suit our conditions.”

The first commercial poppy crop was grown in 1969. From there the industry continued to expand and at its peak grew about 30,000ha.

“Around about 2000, we became the biggest producer of pain management alkaloids in the world,” Mr Rice said.

“We were providing about 50 per cent of the of the world demand.”

One of the key industry milestones Mr Rice remembers was the development of the high yielding Norman thebaine poppy by Tasmanian Alkaloids.

“We wouldn’t have this industry today in my view if the Norman poppy and the high yielding thebaine poppy hadn’t been researched and put into commercial application,” he said.

Mr Rice left TFGA in 2002 and set up an industrial relation consultancy business, but continued to work with the poppy industry and later became chief executive officer of Primary Employers Tasmania.

While he planned to retire in 2016, Mr Rice agreed to stay on until the organisation could recruit a replacement.

Six years down the track, Mr Rice is handing over to Mr Nichol and will officially retire early next year.

New PGT Chief Executive Howard Nichol

While the total poppy crop area has contracted in recent years due to market conditions, Mr Rice said significant improvements in per hectare yields means Tasmania is still a very dominant player.

He expects the industry to settle at around 12,000- 15,000ha annually, depending on the increase in productivity.

He said the way the industry has taken on new technology and research and development has been world class.

“It’s an enormous thrill to see the professional and personal development of the people involved with the industry, especially through the generations,” he said.

“I take a lot of pleasure out of seeing them coming through and I think we should be enormously proud of our industry and what we produce. It gives enormous benefit to mankind in relation to pain management.”