case study

Sam Birrell

Sam Birrell has a long history in agriculture. He grew up on a local irrigated property, studied agricultural and later worked in agronomy – specifically in the field of smart water management. As Committee for Greater Shepparton CEO his role is now to advocate for our region. The committee has united business and community leaders to stand strong on issues – strengthening our economy and making our region a more vibrant place to live. One of the key issues – probably the region’s most important issue – is security of water for irrigation.

“Everything is about irrigation and the delivery of that resource is critical to our region. The reliability of it, the ease of which people can access it – all of those things can make or break those farms. In a nutshell, we have to have a really efficient delivery system."

Our region relies on the irrigation delivery system

“Irrigated agriculture underpins everything in our region so the delivery of that resource is critical,” Sam said.

“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 with very few people.”

This is where the Connections Project comes in. The Project is protecting the irrigators’ consumptive pool.

It’s creating a world-leading irrigation delivery system and generating water savings through infrastructure upgrades, not buyback, to provide to environmental water holders.

“It (the Project) is about making the whole network viable, whereas maybe it wouldn’t have been. It was an ageing leaky delivery system that was designed, and really was fit for purpose, a long time ago,” he said.

“It was world-leading when it was built in the early 20th century, but in the 21st century we’re competing against many challenges – a dry climate, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, competition in export markets that we haven’t had before.

“All of those things mean we had to build something new. In a nutshell, we have to have a really efficient delivery system. Our region relies on it.”

Creating efficiency through water and labour savings

For our region’s farmers the Project is automating water delivery across the region. Dethridge wheels and manual gate and channel systems are being replaced with automatic systems that allow farmers to get water when and where they need it.

“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 three o’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.

The upgraded system delivers water-use efficiency of 85 per cent. The Project also supports some of Australia’s most innovative farmers to leverage smarter on-farm irrigation systems and technology.

“Now the reservoirs are being depleted again, we’ll really understand the efficiency of Connections,” he said.

Connections benefits ripple through the entire GMID

So, while the benefits of modernisation are definitely being felt at the farm gate, Sam says they ripple right through our region.

“In Shepparton, most things get valued added. The fruit and the tomatoes get value added if they go to Kagome or SPC - milk gets value added it because it’s turned into cheese or milk powder,” Sam said.

“There’s a really strong dairy industry here because you can irrigate feed. And it’s because of this industry we see companies like Pactum (now Freedom) building another factory and doubling in size.

“That leads to a lot of employment and there’s a lot of equipment required for all of this. It’s lucky about 3km away is Furphys, a company that excels in building stainless steel tanks.

“So there’s a flow on effect – farm supply, industry, jobs – and it’s all because of irrigated agriculture. You look at Tatura Milk, Fonterra, SPC, there are massive amounts of capital and labour going into those things and it’s all because of agriculture.”

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