California farmers face many obstacles in the process of turning land and water into a food supply for themselves and the other 98 percent of the population that are unconnected to farming. There is a constant struggle to overcome what Mother Nature throws at farmers including unpredictable weather, flood, drought, pests and diseases. Man-made challenges come in the form of laws and regulations that often defy logic, yet are as significant as any natural impediment to efficient and profitable food production.
On a recent trip to Australia I had the opportunity to meet a handful of people that work the land producing food and fiber with the same zeal and hardy nature that I've seen in California. And not surprising one common challenge shared by California farmers and their Aussie cousins is finding a way to help consumers understand the connection between farm water and the food they eat.
At the invitation of the New South Wales Irrigators Council (NSWIC) and underwritten by generous support from Cotton Australia, I was asked to speak at an irrigation conference in the Australian capital of Canberra. Andrew Gregson is the organization's chief executive and he said their interest was to have CFWC share its history and its strategy in the effort to reach consumers with a positive message about farm water and food production.
Wade (right) preparing to speak at a mock debate in the historic Old Parliament Building in Canberra. At left center is Professor Tony Allen, Kings College, London, representing the international team with Wade and Andrew Curtis from Irrigation New Zealand. The topic of the lighthearted debate was whether Australians are the best irrigators in the world. The result of the debate: They’re not.
Australian irrigators are interested in learning about CFWC's efforts to reach consumers. The highly capable NSWIC staff, along with their counterparts at Cotton Australia, the Rice Growers Association and other organizations, effectively engages their elected representatives and government regulators. They're looking ahead from a point where CFWC was back in 1989 and they’re asking themselves how to best educate consumers about the connection between farm water and the food supply.
The NSWIC is an organization similar to CFWC. It was formed to help represent the needs of farmers who irrigate land in the Australian state of New South Wales in Eastern Australia. Farmland in the area receives water from the Murrumbidgee River. The land in the area is flat and periodic overland flooding covers thousands of square miles before it returns to the river or percolates into the ground. Rice is one of the primary crops in the Murray-Darling Basin, along with cotton, citrus, almonds, winter grain crops and a burgeoning wine industry.
Richard Stott is the NSWIC chairman and grows cotton, rice and wine grapes. He's a big man with an equally big smile and sense of humor, the latter of which seems necessary when facing the natural and man-made challenges in the Murray-Darling Basin.
NSWIC Chairman Richard Stott
Stott has been at the helm of the organization while the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) adopted the MDBA Basin Plan. The Plan was adopted in November 2012 and when fully enacted would divert 2,750 gigaliters (about 2.2 million acre-feet) at the basin level and would redirect it to environmental purposes. That equates to roughly one third of the water currently used by farmers. It is not unlike current efforts by California's State Water Resources Control Board to enact regulations that set minimum flow standards in the tributaries to the San Joaquin River. The difference is that Australian water rights, or licenses, are generally owned by individual farmers and that public money can be used to purchase the rights from the farmers. Subsequently, farmers use funds generated by water rights sales to improve on-farm water use efficiency so they can continue to grow crops with their remaining supplies. At least that’s how proponents of the Basin Plan say it will work.
The day after the conference I drove with Stott four hours west of Canberra to the town of Griffith to visit farms and to meet the farmers who grow a significant amount of Australia’s food and fiber. While differences exist between Australian and California farmers, there is one common trait among them: the desire to grow something of value from the natural resources around them. They are farmers to the bone.
Garry Carlon grows rice and almonds near Benerembah, a small town southwest of Griffith. Not unlike California farmers, Carlon makes decisions on which crops to grow based on soil type, climate and the availability of a market. He has a total of 360 acres of almonds ranging from four to eight years old. Also similar to some California farmers, Carlon's almonds are irrigated with a drip system fed from a small reservoir on his property. The reservoir serves to regulate his supply from Murrumbidgee Irrigation District so he can irrigate his trees regularly without having an on-demand supply managed by the district.
Murrumbidgee River farmer Garry Carlon
One of his recent challenges involved a mysteriously declining pump efficiency over the course of an irrigation season. He determined that fine silt from the reservoir was making its way through the system, scouring the pumps’ interior surfaces and effectively reducing their efficiency by about half. Off-season maintenance currently underway includes rebuilding the pumps and installing a floating intake in the reservoir to eliminate the problem. Because it is in the Southern hemisphere, Australian crop production occurs from about October through May.
Another area farm that has taken advantage of public funding for on-farm irrigation efficiency improvements in exchange for water returned to the environment belongs to Barry and Gillian Kirkup. In addition to her role as a business partner and wife of her husband Barry, Gillian is the financial officer for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation District. Barry Kirkup explained that flood irrigation on their farm is highly efficient, thanks to the improvements they have undertaken including precise laser leveling and the installation of bankless channels on the ends of the fields. Bankless channels are shallow waterways approximately 20 feet wide running perpendicular to the field rows. They allow large volumes of water to push through the field at a high rate, shortening irrigation cycles and reducing losses to groundwater and evaporation. The bankless channels replaced hundreds of siphon tubes formerly used, saving time and eliminating a significant amount of labor.
Bankless channels are also used on a neighboring farm owned by Dallas and Liz Stott. Dallas is the nephew of NSWIC Chairman Richard Stott. His wife, Liz, works with him on the farm and also serves as the communications and policy officer for Australia’s Rice Growers Association. Liz is a skilled communicator and extremely organized, having put together my farm tour on about an hour's notice the day before.
Dallas and Liz Stott
As a younger farm couple, Dallas and Liz possess the energy and optimistic outlook that the agriculture industry needs if it hopes to carry-on into the future.
The next morning I met with Rob Kelly, executive manager of planning at the Murrumbidgee Irrigation District for a tour of the Barren Box Storage and Wetland (BBSW) area. Historically known as Barren Box Swamp, the 7,900-acre natural depression has served as an irrigation drainage and storage facility dating back to the mid-1920’s. Murrumbidgee Irrigation was targeted by the Basin Plan to provide more than 16,000 acre-feet of water per year to help meet the overall environmental water supply goals for the region. That represented a significant amount of water from the district’s supply and meant that large swaths of farmland were at risk due of fallowing or retirement as a result of the environmental water transfer.
Barren Box Storage and Wetland area
Instead, planners from the irrigation district proposed an innovative idea: alter the operation of Barren Box by reducing the wetted area to reduce evaporative losses and at the same time, create a new, naturally managed wetland area for local wildlife.
The five-year project received $29 million in redevelopment funds in 2005 from the NSW government and the result has been a win for both farmers and the environment. Kelly explained that despite opposition by some environmentalists because it is an engineered solution, water management activities like this don't have to have a winner and a loser. It just takes flexibility and a willingness to seek solutions from both sides in order to make them work.
This brings us back to the main reason for the trip: Educating Australian farmers and communications specialists about the successful ways CFWC has engaged the general public about farm water and food production. They already have the positive stories about Australian farmers working to be as efficient as possible while growing food and fiber crops for themselves and others around the world. With a communications partnership between California, Australian and even New Zealand farmers, the possibilities are endless for communicating agriculture's message to consumers who depend on farm water to produce the food they buy for their families.