Irrigation and the Mallee

When  I was at the Morgan photo camp   with Gilbert Roe  in early November I  noticed that  the stretch of land around Morgan and Waikerie   was increasingly being transformed  by the ongoing clearing of the original mallee scrub and its  replacement by irrigation in the form of irrigated agriculture.  This is a  landscape is one of red sands, the Murray River and  gum trees and the horticultural crops now being grown appear to be primarily critus fruit (mandarins and oranges)  and vines. It is an extensive transformation of the land.

This transformation is an  indication of the ongoing  history of the continual  clearing of the Mallee scrub in this  region. From what I can gather it started  when soldier-settlers returned from World War I and grew grenache and palomino grapes for the big wineries to make generic sherries and ports.  In the 1960s and ’70s,  the emerging Australian thirst for table wine required huge quantities of sweet white gordo and sultana grapes to fill flagons and casks of fruity moselle. Through the 1990s and early 2000s it was sunshine-in-a-glass chardonnay and shiraz exported to the supermarkets in the  UK in bulk.


Even though this part  of the South Australian  mallee is above  Goyder’s Line, the extensive irrigation based on the  extraction of  water from the River Murray overcomes the lack of rain. The water for irrigation is based on a water entitlement (calculated based on crop area and crop requirement) with the total usage capped by State legislation. Any expansion  comes from either  buying up properties or water trading.  The region has a high vulnerability and high dependence on water  whilst  the community has limited options and a low ability to cope with a reduction in water allocation.

The irrigation pumps were everywhere in this region,  and they are privately owned.  From what I could see most of the vineyards were drip irrigated. There is  a high exposure of the industry to an export market for bulk wine,  and this kind of land use requires that the costs of production  be kept low. The last decade  has been  one of oversupply,  poor grape prices, low quality wine and an income source  for growers that was  less than the cost of production–the  legacy of the rapid planting that took place between 1995-2005.

The pumps  along the bank of the River Murray at  Moorook were old,  and they  suggested a history of irrigation that reaches back to the 1890s. This is a  history that is also marked by dead river gums  caused by taking too much water from the Murray River  for irrigation. The area has also suffered from high river salinity in the past   whilst  future climate change  is projected to ensure an  underlying climate trend in  the Riverland  is one of  hotter summers, more heat spikes and extreme weather events and earlier harvests. This pretty much  means a reduction in suitable growing area with grape quality also reduced.

Historically, the Riverland  region  has been dependent on heavy growth in the low end of the market–‘low cost, low quality wine’. The wineries inform the growers in the region to grow as much as they can, take what they can get from the wineries, never talk about quality, never mention the word flavour. To compensate for the poor returns per tonne, many Riverland growers are cropping at ever-higher levels, which reduces quality, meaning the fruit slips further down the grading scale. A depressing vicious cycle.

The fore mentioned conditions indicate that the region  is not sustainable for the region  to be trying to produce the world’s cheapest wine. The region is  totally unsuited to producing D-grade bulk wine—ie.,  low cost, low quality wine for supermarkets–-its uneconomic.  The Riverland  region  will be unable to compete in the future  with countries such as Chile and Argentina with their lower   costs of wine production.  So  producers will need to move away from producing  cheap supermarket booze towards premium, higher quality and higher cost wines from 40 year old wines.

The landscape south of the irrigated region  quickly  reverts to  dryland farming,  grazing land and saltbush. It is hot, dry and dusty with  the land being  underlain by saline groundwater. The capacity for dryland agriculture  to transform to different commodities is  low as  rainfall is insufficient or marginal for dryland farms.

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