Greg Barila

Journalist. Editor. Social Media specialist.

Ground Zero

IT’S dirty, hard and tireless work, made tougher by the vagaries of the seasons, fickle markets and spiralling expenses. 

As many in the game will tell you, farming is a mug’s game at the best of times.

But as the communities dotted along the Murray River will tell you too, these are far from 
the best of times.

For the first time in living memory, thousands of farming families along the river system, the same families that put wine in your glass and food on your plate, are facing the prospect of zero water allocations for the coming irrigation season.

Those with long memories can well remember the swelling floods of 1956. But they can’t remember a time when walking away from everything they have worked for, with little more than the shirt on their backs and crippling debt, seemed like the best of a bad bunch of options. 

A time when the difference between lush green trees, and crisp, brown, lifeless crops, was just a matter of weeks, and the swish of a pen in Canberra.

Greg Barila takes a road trip through the Riverland to Mildura to find out what happens to thriving communities when the water stops flowing.

IN THE heart of the city of Mildura, William Benjamin Chaffey stands proudly on his statue pedestal, surveying the progress of the fertile irrigated community he and his elder brother George helped conjure out of ‘‘the hissing desert’’ in the late 19th Century.

The Canadian engineers, who earlier had turned Los Angeles into the first fully electrically lit city in the world, came to the district on the invitation of Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, then a minister in the Victorian Government. 
Their settlements proved to be financial failures but a triumph of engineering.

Reads the plaque beneath W.B’s statue: “He was the moving spirit and for many years, President of The Dried Fruits Association, which in time of stress saved these settlements from extinction.”

One hundred and twenty years on, with Murray infl ows at record lows, the threat of extinction for the dozens of towns in the Murray Darling fruit bowl seems just as real as it was the day the Chaffeys turned the first sod.

Whether the drought will break these towns depends on who you talk to. But none would dare say things here are anything but very, very grim.

Barbara Harris, 75, retired to Barmera from Adelaide about seven years ago. Her son runs a carting business during the wine grape season. This vintage, business was down about a third.

“This year was bad. But next year, if it doesn’t rain, your guess for that is as good as anybody else’s,” Harris says.

“They’re talking about closing Lake Bonney; I mean, that’s the tourist attraction for the Riverland. Close that, people are not going to come.

“In addition to all that, it’s the cost of living itself. I mean, everything’s going to go sky high.
If you take a look at the big picture of it, it’s pretty scary.”

Up the road, third-generation farmer Richard Swinstead, 57, runs 300 acres of vines and citrus. Immaculately manicured, his young trees are verdant and healthy. By next year they may be leafless skeletons.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Swinstead says simply, as his dogs take turns mauling a tennis ball.

“We’ve all got loans to service, we’ve got employees. It’s huge infrastructure we’ve built up over the years.”

Like many large-scale farmers, Swinstead wouldn’t get much change out of $6 million if he had to rebuild his business from scratch.

And with up to six years before citrus trees start producing, how many farmers, if they could afford to, would bother?

If Prime Minister John Howard’s prayers for rain are answered, things could turn around as quickly as they have soured, but Swinstead says rain dances are a poor substitute for hard infrastructure, foresight and good government policy.

“They’ve sat on their hands and all they’re doing is praying for rain.

“If it doesn’t rain it’s going to be a catastrophe for the country. It won’t be a Depression but it will be billions of dollars. There will beramifications right through the cities.”

Too little, he says, is being done to prevent evaporation from major lakes or to prohibit companies and managed investment schemes from sucking the rivers dry to fill dams for plantings that are not even in the ground yet.

“Legally they can do it because they’ve obviously gone out and bought the water off dairy farms but morally, it’s totally wrong.”

A couple of hours up the road and a stone’s throw across the border in Mildura, water is the topic on everyone’s lips, more precisely the fear that soon there may not be much to wet them.

The fountains don’t fl ow these days, but the town is as pretty as usual. But for how long?
Tony Roccisano runs one of the bigger real estate agencies in town.

“I’ve been in it for 27 years. It’s probably the most worrying times that I’ve experienced,’’ he said. 

“The farming sector, it’s a mixed bag, most of them are doing it very, very hard but then you have pockets of people who are doing very well with fresh fruit and also there are some good operators on citrus.

“I know a lot of farmers are now putting in cash crops to try and stay afloat.”

Not that he’s had a run on farmers falling over themselves to sell their properties. For a start, who’d be mad enough to buy a farm with useless water rights?

“A lot of them know that if they do put them on the market there’s not much demand for them so they’re holding off, hoping that the market will improve.”

Vernon Knight is the executive director of community and social welfare organisation Mallee Family Care and a member of thecity council. You can see WB’s statue from his office across the road.

What Chaffey might have to say about the current crisis has never occurred to him but he’s worried for his own part.

“Here we are in the fastest growing regional inland centre in Australia facing the threat of the absence of the essential commodity. I mean, no water, clearly no Murray Valley, no Mildura,” Knight says.

“It certainly is unprecedented.”

Despite the grim prognosis not everyone sees things as utterly hopeless.

“I think Mildura still has a future but it will be much more difficult, as it will be for all the irrigation areas,” says Nationals MP and member for Mildura Peter Crisp.

It’s Sunday afternoon and Crisp, himself a citrus farmer, is in his office.

A sure and quick talker, he is a font of information, flipping through a stack of reports on his desk, unfurling maps and scurrying between rooms to point out the litany of ideas he’s working on to squeeze a precious few hundred megalitres of water out of the system.

Most of them revolve around sucking “dead storage” from various lakes and wetlands to help growers on the NSW side of the river finish their crops. It’s a topic close to home.

For the past 24 years my father, Joe, 60, has run a citrus farm at Gol Gol, a few kilometres from Mildura. He’s no stranger to difficult times. 

During the 1980s, growers were nearly crippled by interest rates up to 18 per cent and the slashing of tariffs, which opened the flood gates to the scourge of cheap Brazilian fruit juice concentrate. 

One of my earliest memories is of picketing outside the local juice factory against the imports that werethreatening to take bread from our mouths.

The monkey on his back now is the fragility of the water supply. What will he do with a zero allocation?

“We’ll go back to zero too,” he says. “Back to where we started.”

“I just don’t want to think about it.”

My sister, Connie, and her family, work the business too. What’s happening around her breaks her heart, makes her angry.

“Why is the government spending money in far-flung places when our own people are suffering?” she demands to know.

“I feel most sorry for growers like dad. All he has is this property.”

“After all these years of employing hundreds of people and paying taxes he may be forced to walk away with nothing, nothing to show for all these years of work.

“Farmers are adept at making changes, we adapt to unforeseen circumstances every day.

“But with no water, there are no possibilities and that’s frightening.”

Meanwhile, there’s William Benjamin Chaffey still overlooking the future of his settlements.
Just what kind of future he sees is anybody’s guess. A penny for your thoughts, Mr Chaffey?

This article was first published in Adelaide's The Independent Weekly, April 28, 2007.