17 – Sophie N.

Hi guys! My name is Sophie Nowak and I’m a sophomore majoring in Biosystems Engineering with a concentration in Ecosystems Engineering. I’m from Brighton, MI which is about 20ish minutes north of Ann Arbor. I love working out, water sports (especially wakeboarding!) and cooking. I’m a huge fan of biology and it’s something I really enjoy learning about.

I’m super excited to learn about the everyday culture of Australia, as well as see how they handle big sustainability issues in comparison to the U.S. I love to explore new places, so I’m looking forward to going on this big adventure!

While we were abroad in Australia, I researched how farmers practicing sustainable agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin adjusted their practices in order to react in times of drought, and if there were any governmental safety nets to help them.

Agriculture is a huge industry in the Murray-Darling Basin, with the region claiming 40% of Australia’s irrigated crops, while the Basin is only 14% of Australia’s total land area (Murray-Darling Basin Authority, 2015). Common crops grown in the Basin include olives, cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and nuts (Australian Bureau of Statistics, n.d.).

Spanning from the 1990s to 2009, the Millenium Drought is one of the most severe and long-lived droughts in the Murray-Darling Basin’s recorded history. As of right now, a shorter but more intense drought is occurring, with temperatures at record highs and rainfall at record lows. With climate change happening, it is assumed that these droughts will become far more common, as well as more intense (Water Source, 2019).

With water availability and usage raising so many concerns, the government decided to regulate water consumption for businesses, and this has since led to a water entitlement system being put in place (Connell, 2015). Beginning in the 1970s, the government started to hand out permits to water (in units of megaliters) and now anyone can purchase a water entitlement, regardless of land ownership status (Grahame, group communicaton, May 24, 2019). If there is a drought, farmers may not receive their entire allocation. Many farmers decide to just sell their allocation and produce no crops, but others either buy water at a higher price or implement practices that can help with water retention and reduce water consumption.

During our time in the Murray-Darling Basin, our education abroad group visited many interesting locations that illustrated how resilient farmers are when it comes to drought. One of the sites, Mallyons on the Murray, is an organic Lebanese cucumber farm situated in close proximity to the Murray River, and it is operated by Nick Builder.

The farm had originally been producing fruit trees, and had possessed around twenty-five liters of water. Realizing that fruit trees require a large amount of space, water and care, Nick used a government program to sell twenty of his twenty-five megaliters of water. He upgraded the farm to require less water, switching from fruit trees to Lebanese cucumbers that were vertically farmed with drip irrigation in hothouses. Now, he possesses only five of his original twenty-five megaliters of water, but the risk of having so much less water is manageable because of the upgrades implemented on the farm (Builder, group communication, May 27, 2019).

Lebanese cucumbers being vertically grown in a hothouse at Mallyons on the Murray, an organic, off-the-grid farm on the Murray River.

Another site visit we experienced was to Varapodio Olive Estate in Mildura, NSW. According to Donna Scopelliti, one of the operators of the business, olives are greatly adapted to arid climates, with mature olive trees only needing around fifty liters of water a week. In order to conserve water, they implement a system referred to as “fertigation,” which combines and releases fertilizer with the water in a drip irrigation method, which decreases the amount of evaporation that occurs from the source of irrigation to the plant roots (Scopelliti, group communication, May 25, 2019).

One interesting thing I saw was at Ceres Environment Park in Melbourne. Ceres implemented sap flow meters to be placed on trees in order to be aware of their general health. The same could be done for crops that grow as trees in the Murray-Darling Basin to monior their health and stress levels, as well as to acquire quantitative data in order to adjust resource consumption accordingly. While putting one sap flow meter on every tree would be expensive and time-consuming, putting one on every few trees, or even trees in areas susceptible to stress, could be beneficial in providing a holistic picture of plant health and use resources in a smarter and more educated way (Ceres Environment Park, group communication, May 15, 2019).

In the past thirty years, the mindset of the agriculture industry has shifted to be more conscious of how their resources are spent. Illustrated by the Millennium Drought in the 1990s-2009 and the current drought, it is evident that droughts will not cease to exist anytime soon. Luckily, through my education abroad experience in the Australia, and specifically the Murray-Darling Basin, I had the opportunity to be exposed to many business owners who care about moving towards a more sustainable world. These business owners are implementing practices that will help them consume fewer resources at a more sustainable rate, while also leaving bountiful resources for future generations to enjoy, utilize, and benefit from.

Helpful Links

CERES Community Environment Park. (2019, August 02). Retrieved from https://ceres.org.au/

Drought in the Murray–Darling Basin. (2018, August 14). Retrieved from https://www.mdba.gov.au/managing-water/drought-murray-darling-basin

Mallyons on the Murray. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.wildlifelandtrust.org.au/index.php/explore/sanctuaries/nsw/665-mallyon-s-on-the-murray

RuralCo Water Trading Zone Information. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ruralcowater.com.au/

Varapodio. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.varapodioestate.com.au/about-us.html

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (n.d.). Agricultural production in the Murray-Darling Basin. 

Connell, David. “Irrigation, Water Markets and Sustainability in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin.” Agriculture and Agricultural Science Procedia, Elsevier, 27 Apr. 2015.

Grahame, Phil (2019, May 24). Group communication.

Murray-Darling Basin Authority. (2015, November 26). Geography.

Water Source. (2019, July 23). Murray-Darling Basin drought ‘most severe’ on record.

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