One Hot Summer

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Walking around my father’s orchard, it could have been any other summer. The trees were in full leaf, the fruit set well, and the early varieties fetched good prices at market. But in among the trees were patches of bare ground, old stock bulldozed and not replanted. There were trees left unpicked because, without enough water through the growing season, the fruit was too small to bother with. And this season, for the first time, my father left trees to die.

My father, Terry Caffrey, has been growing fruit in Woorinen, a small irrigation community 400 kilometres north of Melbourne, all his life. He grew up with his father on a soldier settlement block nearby, and 60 odd years later, "going ’round the water" – the regular watering of the family’s 19 hectares of trees – remains his most vital daily task.

Last year, Terry, his wife and son – who together run Caffrey Orchards – used 70 per cent of the water allocated to their land to grow their peaches, apricots and nectarines. Some of their neighbours sold their unused water to supplement farm income, but the Caffreys kept theirs in reserve for future need. This means they had a little extra to get them through this harvest.

Back in October, the local water authority announced that irrigators in the district would receive just 18 per cent of their usual water allocation. That increased gradually – by mid-December, when water was most desperately required, they were allowed 28 per cent; by mid-January, 34 per cent. But that still wasn’t enough water to keep all their trees alive, let alone ripen all the fruit usually harvested across a long warm season that runs from early November to late March.

Farmers here have always planned for good years and bad. Woorinen orchardist, 83-year-old Jack Butler, recalls the years of 1942-46, when it was possible to walk dry footed across the Murray River. Dust storms were a daily occurrence, and soldiers returning home after the War found their fences had disappeared under sand drifts blown in from the Mallee. Not ten years later, those who stuck it out were sandbagging the Murray against the worst floods in decades.

The local wisdom is that times of drought will be followed by years of flood, refilling catchments and flushing out the rivers. But even if the drought breaks this winter – or the winter after that, as Jack believes it must – it will be too late for many.

It is so dry at Woorinen that rabbits are biting through irrigation lines under the trees just to get a drink of water. Third and fourth generation orchardists may lose everything – trees, crops and any expectation of future earnings – in one blazing hot summer. The farmers’ dilemma cannot be written off as bad management. While there is much talk in the media about the inefficiency of the small family farm, at Woorinen, growers have united with the local water authority to make their district a copybook case for effective water use.

Throughout my 1970s childhood, my father irrigated much as his father had. Open channels built by "susso" workers during the Depression carried river water to the farms. Water wheels measured the water that flooded under the trees, sliding tin doors were opened or closed to stem the flow, and ibis and crane stalked the ditches. When I followed after my father in those days, I squelched barefoot through the mud. Gumboots and shovel were his tools of trade.

My father last bought gumboots in 2001. He rarely wears them. Woorinen irrigators today are at the forefront of water conservation. Flooding the land was replaced by efficient drip irrigation systems in the early 1990s, and the open channels, with their high wastage of water from leakage and evaporation, were replaced by the Woorinen Pipeline in 2003.

The pipeline, which brings river water to 220 users in the district, saved 2000 megalitres of water immediately when it opened, much of it diverted for environmental flows to the Snowy River. Woorinen farmers matched the Victorian State Government dollar for dollar on the $18 million project. They have already made the sort of water savings that the controversial Sugarloaf Pipeline now under construction will replicate on a much larger scale in the Shepparton area. They could be forgiven for thinking they’ve done their bit to protect their industry and manage a sustainable water resource into the future.

Instead, the farmers – who are still paying for the pipeline infrastructure – faced impossible choices this summer. Those who could afford to (or those the banks allowed) spent tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars buying water on the open market, at prices that have ranged between $850 a megalitre back in September, to up to $1300 at the height of the season in December.

For many orchardists across the Murray Goulburn region, it was a gamble that has yet to be played out – they relied on good prices for their fruit to cover their additional water costs. Others couldn’t afford the gamble. They sold their water rights and gave up their farms. Buy or sell. There were no alternatives. There is no drought relief program that can keep trees alive without water.

Those who leave, selling their permanent water rights out of the district, will not be replaced. Local businesses, schools, sporting clubs and community groups will all be hard hit. A huge skills and knowledge base is leaving the region along with the trees.

This is no ordinary drought year. There are many factors contributing to the demise of these small communities. What part does global warming play? How fair is a water trading system which enables speculators with no interest in farming to buy and sell megalitres of water as if they were shares on the stockmarket? How significant are the managed investment schemes that have been buying up small farmers’ permanent water rights and planting thousands of hectares of previously unviable land for export crops?

The issues are complex, but the pain in the country is very real. Now, with the news of a national takeover of the Murray Darling Basin to improve environmental flows in the river system, it seems inevitable that more farmers will give up their land. The decimation of these regions has moved from free market practicality to social policy. There can no longer be any doubt that for these small farming communities, everything must change.

There was rain at Woorinen in January. It came in the form of a bad joke, falling heavily just before the nectarines were ready to harvest. It made no difference to catchment levels, but marked the fruit just enough to make it unsaleable.

Still, my family has just about got through the harvest. The current water allocation has reached 46 per cent. That can’t undo the damage done to trees underwatered or left unwatered since October, but at least all the trees on my father’s orchard can now be watered on a weekly basis. There’s even enough water to raise a late crop of zucchini, a last minute "cash crop" that won’t cost much to harvest and just might bring in a little extra money.

My father is still going round the water. He’s not ready to give up the orchard. The end of season meetings with bankers and accountants are fast approaching. But until then, letting go of the trees is not something he can think about, let alone discuss. The prospect of a fourth generation following him onto the family farm seems less and less likely. But with his wife and son, my father is planning for survival, not defeat.

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