Friday, 29 May 2009

Leadership: from irrigation to the dry land


Large agricultural and pastoral landholders in Australia have always made their fortune by following the water.  Now, this sounds like a truism.  What grower of crops or grazer of cattle and sheep would not ensure access to water.  

I'm talking about more than this.  I am talking about strategic planning; long range strategies allowing for different emphasis on crops according to changes of season or the movement of livestock because of seasons or to maximise grassland use in breeding, fattening, finishing before market.

The great exemplar in the history of Australia in this regard was Sid Kidman, the Cattle King with whom my grandfather was a regular correspondent .  Kidman battled major droughts; he maximised his land use through stock movement; and he  ensured through widespread holdings a sort of insurance against the seasons.  His ideas have been continued by many others.

Kidman became corporate and the company continues to-day.  Almost seventy-five years after Kidman's death, Australia is in its biggest battle with significant areas in prolonged drought; the recognition that climate change is chipping in with its contribution to unpredictable climatic conditions; iconic and important rivers in a mess of our own making; and water policy across the country in tatters.

The changes in water policy (i.e. unbundling of water from land; water trading of allocations; water accounting) is leading Water Worriers and Warriors to look closely at the corporates to see what they are up to (i.e. amassing of large water allocations away from smaller family farms and corporates).  Some of us fear a future of allocations for the rich and inaccessibility for the poor.

It is, therefore, refreshing to read this article in The Age this morning.  Twynam is big and it has been built on river strategies.  It's financial interests are widespread.  The Australian Government has purchased massive water allocations from Twynam using our, the taxpayers, money.

Now, I feel certain that Twynam has done a canny deal on this or it may not have happened.  However, it is a deal that is noticed - and is noticed for the message it gives.
The group is selling its entitlements in its strategy to move from irrigated agriculture to more dry-land farming.
When small family farmers are living on their land without working it or walking away from their land after selling water allocations to the neighbours and their land for next to nothing;  when small corporates are assessing their situation, Twynam's decision to rethink irrigated agriculture is significant.

Because Twynam is such a significantly large landholder, this is leadership stuff.  It sends the signal question: How do we manage our land to provide agricultural and pastoral production and a sustainable income with it?  If a major corporate is asking these hard questions, shouldn't those further down the food chain be doing a re-think too?

I do hope that the Australian Government's plans for the water achieve their aims - healing and health for the Darling system.

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