What you had to say about current state of irrigation industry

What you had to say about current state of irrigation industry


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We asked northern irrigators what they would do if they were Prime Minister for a day.

It is said crisis is the true revealer of character and that's what's happening to the water market in the current drought.

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According to election-fuelled national media, our biggest worries stop at fish kills, government over-spend on water buybacks and the antics of a very angry ex-Water Minister.

But what you won't hear is the human cost of decades of free market reforms.

We reached out to a handful of northern Victorian irrigators to see what they would change if they were Prime Minister for the day. Read what they had to say below.

Mark Bryant, dairy farmer, Nathalia

Mark Bryant, Nathalia, says he's worried about a growing divide among northern Victorian irrigators. Photo by Andrew Miller.

Mark Bryant, Nathalia, says he's worried about a growing divide among northern Victorian irrigators. Photo by Andrew Miller.

How would you describe the state of the irrigation industry in your area?

The state of the irrigation industry in our area could be described as divided into haves and have nots. Those farmers who don't own any permanent water are sitting on a knife's edge. These farmers are totally reliant on an ever-changing water market. The opportunity for these farmers to purchase water at affordable prices is becoming increasingly difficult. Farmers that own a significant amount of permanent water are able to control the water cost part of their business more. There does seem to be a growing divide amongst farmers. Those that own water seem to be able to continue to grab opportunities at the ideal time. Those who don't own water are finding it more difficult to grab these opportunities.

What difference has water reform and the Basin Plan made? Has it impacted you directly?

It has changed the landscape of our communities significantly, perhaps forever. Our small local towns, schools and sporting clubs are all feeling the impact of water reform, this year our local footy club is faced with very low numbers in both junior teams, school enrolments also continue to decline. The Plan has impacted our business in relation to water trading. We are active on the temporary market each year. With fast-moving temporary water prices this year, we have not purchased as much water as we would have liked, therefore resulting in milking fewer cows and spending less money in our local community.

What did the community and irrigation industry look like a before water reform and the Basin Plan?

This is a great question, we were discussing this at the pub over the weekend. The community looked full of passion, enthusiasm and was thriving, schools and local sporting clubs were well attended, local ecosystems were a hive of activity. Farmers were investing back into their business and building generational plans - the main streets in local towns where busy and people felt positive about the future. People saw a future living in our area.

If you were Prime Minister for the day, what would you change to boost the community?

1. I would change it so there was transparency in the water market (similar to share market, everyone can see who is trading and for what price).

2. I would review the carryover rules.

3. I would look at what happens to water when the dam is deemed to spill.

READ MORE: Water politics at front of mind ahead of election

Jode Hay, dairy farmer, Cohuna

How would you describe the state of the irrigation industry in your area?

I believe before the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, Victoria had one of the best irrigation systems in the world, an amazing system using the magic of gravity. Yes, there were a few things that needed tweaking such as carryover rules and the distribution of infrastructure costs, but overall it was a pretty amazing system that was reliable and created a very productive region. Now the state of our irrigation region is a bit like a train wreck and facing a bleak future if something doesn't change soon. We have been part of the MDBP $2 billion modernisation program. So our district now has one of the modern and efficient irrigation systems in the world, but our experience is that fewer farmers are able to afford to use it. The environmental impacts on 100 year-old ecosystems have not been considered, which is ironic considering the whole MDBP was environmentally-based. We are witnessing vast parts of the district not irrigated, due to farmers being unable to afford temporary water as the price has skyrocketed over the past 12 months from around $120/Megalitre to $650/ML at present. The break-even price for dairy farmers to pay for water is around $150 to $180/ML for temporary water, hence a large number of farmers exiting the dairy industry and selling off their cows.

What difference has water reform and the basin plan made?

Water reform and the implementation of the plan have had the most severe and devastating effect on our farming community than any other natural or man-made disaster. Over the past seven years, 80 per cent of the 26pc of the productive pool of water bought by the Commonwealth for the environment was Victorian water. The fact that this has been bought using the public purse, using taxpayers money, has distorted the market, hence the dramatic increase in both temporary and permanent water prices, making it too expensive for many industries to use. It is now owned by people who no longer own land or produce food or fibre. It has become more like a share on the stock market, rather than our nation's most valuable asset. The impact of the MDBP has extremely hard hit our region. Our area has been built around irrigated dairy, once boasting the production of 26pc of the nation's milk. This year alone we have seen 30 farms sell their dairy herds, with many others contemplating to do the same. Milk production in the north is down 35pc, with even those farmers who continue to dairy reducing their herds by an average of at least 20pc. An average 200 cow dairy farm produces $1 million at farm gate with $780,000 of this going back into the region, so the impact on our rural businesses and community is enormous.

What did the community and irrigation district look like before water reform and the Basin Plan?

Our region became the largest and most intense dairy district due to the reliability of the irrigation system. Before water reform, we enjoyed 200pc water allocation as well as sales water if the season allowed. It was a profitable and secure way to produce milk. Our town had five banks up until this year when the Commonwealth closed, and the Bendigo Bank reduced its hours. It was unusual to see an irrigated property. However, this autumn the reverse is true. Vast areas of and remain unwatered and there is stranded irrigation infrastructure everywhere. Our student numbers in two of the three schools have halved, over this time. There have also been huge environmental impacts to our region, as the once green pastures of our farms provided feeding grounds and habitat for vast numbers of native species. Many of these are now brown and barren, and the reduction in open channels has proved very damaging to those animals that once inhabited them. The shared benefits of irrigated agriculture were not considered as part of the Basin Plan; therefore the negative outcomes will also not be measured in the plans evaluations.

Adam Wright, mixed cropper, Fernihurst

How would you describe the state of the irrigation industry in your area?

Bad, but deteriorating would be a better way of putting it. We have so much water heading out of this system; I'm not sure we are going to be able to retain a critical mass, to keep our section operating. So many large horticultural operations are buying up water, I just don't know if this area is going to fall over.

What difference has water reform and the Basin Plan made? Has it impacted you directly?

My supply is less reliable, and it's a much bigger headache. The system doesn't seem to be working properly, and the costs are continually going up.

What did the community and irrigation industry look like a before water reform and the Basin Plan?

It had its ups and downs, but it just seemed to be more reliable. My section of the system worked, before modernisation.

Carly Marriott, cropping and prime lamb operation, Barooga, NSW

How would you describe the state of the irrigation industry in your area?

It's a complete disaster. The Southern Basin has been the sacrificial lamb of this whole, convoluted, corrupt intertwined tool.

What difference has water reform and the Basin Plan made? Has it impacted you directly?

Our business is based on the use of irrigation, to compliment rainfall, that's the primary risk management strategy. When the basis of our business is pulled out from underneath us, we are left completely exposed. We farm on the basis of having irrigation water - if you take that away, the entire basis of our business collapses. We can sow a certain amount of hectares, our purchases and finance go hand in hand with water security. We're not silly; we don't think we deserve the water, we pay for it. We pay for the right to have access to water we are not receiving, that's what's crushing the industry in the Southern Basin.

What did the community and irrigation industry look like a before water reform and the Basin Plan?

It looked like full dams and pivots watering crops; the allocation went up and down depending on water storages and seasons. When you looked at water levels in the Hume and Dartmouth dams, you knew what was available to irrigators, and you could make sound business decisions because you knew what your allocations would be. They are full to the brim of Commonwealth-owned water, not intended for irrigators.

If you were PM for the day, what would you change to boost the community?

I think I would just stop and pause the plan, and I would start from the top and figure out what is going on, there is a real lack of understanding as to what is going on

Dean Kendrick, dairy farmer, Kyabram

How would you describe the state of the irrigation industry in your area?

It's pretty ordinary. Too many investors, who don't own farms, are involved in the water market. They are all trying to profit out of it, and it's pushing the price higher. People are leaving the industry in droves because they can't afford to buy water. If you do own permanent water, it's not worth putting it over your farm, as you can sell it on the temporary market for more.

What difference has water reform and the Basin Plan made? Has it impacted you directly?

If anything, it's made it worse. With a price of $500-600/ML, I can't afford to buy it, and the banks won't lend me money to buy it.

If you were PM for the day, what would you change to boost the community?

Dairy farmers are so important; the government needs to step in pretty quickly, and get all this sorted. If dairy farmers are making money and growing their businesses, they are spending in the country towns, and they thrive. They talk about jobs and growth; they need to step in and fix the industry. Two things are important, the first is the milk price, it needs to be sustainable, and the other issue is water.

Mick Moloney, cropping operation, Jerilderie, NSW

Jerilderie, NSW, irrigator Michael Moloney carried over water last year and bought some to finish his winter crops, but says he has no fall-back this year. Photo by Olivia Calver.

Jerilderie, NSW, irrigator Michael Moloney carried over water last year and bought some to finish his winter crops, but says he has no fall-back this year. Photo by Olivia Calver.

What difference has water reform and the Basin Plan made? Has it impacted you directly?

We're definitely on our knees, it's very hard to have any confidence in irrigation, we've gone from being irrigators to opportunist irrigators. The general feeling among irrigators is that we're angry and bitter and it seems like the whole system is simply being drained down to South Australia. There's just a general lack of confidence. It's (the Basin Plan) taken security away from our business, you know we can't rely on irrigation anymore, you can't plan.This year we only put in a third of our usual corn area and the whole thing was a low margin, high risk exercise that we wouldn't care to repeat. We carried over (water) last year and bought some to finish off winter crops, but we've got no fall-back this year. What needs to happen is independent, apolitical research into the Murray Darling Basin Plan by someone that's had nothing to do with it before, a fresh water ecologist from overseas or someone like that, because the whole thing is so politically tainted now. The lower lakes and the Coorong need to be included in the Basin Plan, because they're not at the moment. I would also like to know which politicians own (or have owned) water and when they sold and bought it in every state, and their families.

What did the community and irrigation industry look like a before water reform and the Basin Plan?

We had vibrant communities, exciting businesses, we were able to forward plan and invest. The biggest change I've seen in my whole career has been the Basin Plan, it's decimated irrigation. With the river in minor flood for most of the summer and zero allocation, it's been just unbelievable.

- What do you think about the industry? Send your letters to the editor to joely.mitchell@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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