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The Murrumbidgee

The Murrumbidgee

Strength in agricultural diversity

We’re all guilty of taking things for granted occasionally, whether it be the beauty of birds in our back yard; reliable phone coverage; or the ability to tap into the internet to find the answer to just about any conundrum at the drop of a hat. It is only when these things falter, or are threatened, that we realise just what we have. Whilst the wider Australian community tends to be generally well disposed toward farmers and shows great empathy in times of disaster such as bush fires or drought, complacency can set in when it comes to having steady access to fresh, wholesome and sustainable food.

The disruption and barriers created by the pandemic over the past two years has shown, in sharp relief, that food security is paramount at an individual, societal and national level. So, it is timely to consider how important it is for farmers in Australia to have access to the resources, infrastructure and services they need to do what they do best: produce clean, green food and fibre. The wider Australian community cannot take for granted the supply of locally produced, high quality and cost-effective food without understanding what it takes to produce and deliver that food to their plates.

Irrigation is one key part of the food and fibre supply story, with irrigated crops accounting for about 30 percent of the value of agricultural production nationally. The Murray Darling Basin is critical and the variety of landscapes in the region is reflected in the diverse range of agricultural industries that rely on the region’s reliable water supplies. The region accounted for 41 percent of the gross value of Australian production of fruit, nuts, vegetables and other horticulture in 2017–18[1].

At a regional level, the Murrumbidgee River is the lifeblood of our food and fibre output. The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) is well known for its citrus, rice and wine grapes, but outside the region, not everyone might know it to be a thriving source of farmed fish, cotton and walnuts. The diversity of produce from the MIA and other areas watered from the Murrumbidgee, has evolved and expanded over recent years to encompass irrigated summer cropping of cotton, sorghum and maize, high value seed crops, lucerne and pasture fodder, aquaculture, vegetables, tree nuts and stone fruit trees. This diversity underpins resilient business, variety in consumer products and strong export returns. It also means that farmers are managing climate variability by selecting the crop that will work best in any given seasonal scenario.

Changes in agricultural enterprises over recent decades have been influenced by a range of factors including the security and cost of water, commodity prices and climatic factors as well as innovation, research and development. As the impacts of a more variable climate have become evident, irrigators have needed to be ever more focused on water productivity, that is the value of the output produced per megalitre of water. The use of precision agriculture, adopting new varieties and altered farming practices have contributed to an overall increase in efficiency in water use. Farmers take nothing for granted and know that they need to always be on the front foot to manage risk and meet challenges inherent in farming.

Yet the fact of life is, that in a number of recent years there has simply not been sufficient water in the river to support the agricultural output the region is capable of delivering. In 2019-20, a year where lower than average rainfall resulted in decreased water available for irrigation, almosthalf of Australia’s total water used for irrigation was within the Murray Darling Basin region[2]. This year saw 2.7 million megalitres of water applied to 701,000 hectares of agricultural land, with fruit and nut trees, pastures for grazing and grapevines using 61 percent of the water applied in the region.

Such a reduction in agricultural output doesn’t only affect farmers and their immediate community, but jobs in downstream processing industries, the income of local agricultural suppliers and general retailers. The NSW and Australian economies more broadly don’t escape unscathed either; the flow on effect of lower water supplies impacts the cost and availability of food, export income and employment. So, it is in everyone’s interests that the policy settings support productive farmers and irrigated agriculture.

 

[1] ABARES 2020, Australian food security and the Covid-19 pandemic, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, Canberra

[2] ABS, Water use on Australian farms, 2021

 

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