case study

Sam Birrell

Sam Birrell understands just how important irrigated agriculture is to the Goulburn-Murray region. He grew up on an irrigated property, and with a background in business and agronomy, knows how the agriculture economy underpins the economic viability and on-going development for the region.

“Everything is about irrigation and the delivery of that resource is critical. The reliability of it, the ease of which people can access it – all of those things can make or break those farms – that’s why it’s important, in a nutshell, that we have a really efficient delivery system.”

Why Connections modernisation was needed

“It was an ageing leaky delivery system that was designed, and really was not fit for purpose,” Sam said.

“It was world-leading when it was built in the early 20th century, but 21st century with all of the challenges we are competing against – a dry climate, the Murray Darling Basin Plan, competition in export markets that we haven’t had before - all of those things mean it wasn’t fit for purpose now and so we had to build something new.

“Agriculture is important to the region and it’s irrigated agriculture here – without irrigation, we are just a bunch of reasonably productive but small wheat farms – so we would end up like a small section of Western Australia, just growing wheat, very few people.”

Benefitting the region’s farmers

“The labour savings are critical, especially in an economy like Australia. We’re trying to grow food in a competitive basis with the rest of the world because we’re exporting,” Sam said.

“There isn’t the cheap labour like there is in the United States or South Africa or Chile or our other competitors, so we really need an automated irrigation system so that farmers and farm managers aren’t running around at 3o’clock in the morning opening gates and shutting gates.

“Efficient delivery of water to the farm is important, the ability of farmers to automate their systems is important and Connections has enabled a lot of that. It’s been pretty contentious about the fact that it’s lessened the footprint of irrigated agriculture, but given the pressures we’re facing now with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, that was always going to have to happen.”

What Connections means for the region

“It’s making the whole thing viable, whereas maybe it wouldn’t have been. Now the reservoirs are being depleted again, we’ll really understand the efficiency of Connections more when we do have those inevitable dry years,” Sam said.

“There’s been an effort to diversify Shepparton a bit and that’s been successful, but irrigated agriculture underpins everything. In Shepparton, most things get valued added – so the fruit and the tomatoes get value added if they go to Kagome or SPC, milk gets value added to it because it turned cheese or milk powder. That leads to a lot of employment and there’s a lot of equipment required for all of this.

“There’s a really strong dairy industry here based on the fact you can irrigate feed, whether it be pasture or fodder. A company comes here and sets up Pactum (now Freedom) and they’re building another factory – doubling in size. UHT milk for domestic and export – the amount of high-tech stainless steel tanks and pipes a place like that requires is huge. About 3km away, is Furphys, a company that excels in building stainless steel tanks.

“So there’s a flow on, as a result of the farm supply – the milk – someone decides to invest capital and build a factory here. That’s all because of agriculture, none of that happens without agriculture. You look at Tatura Milk, Fonterra, SPC - there’s massive amounts of capital and labour going into those things and it’s all because of agriculture.”

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