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Devastating drought set to impact Illawarra's last remaining commercial apple and stone fruit orchard

Justin Huntsdale, Wednesday August 8, 2018 - 09:06 EST
ABC image
Glenbernie Orchard owner Joanne Fahey with some of her nectarine trees she has had to uproot due to weather, animal damage and market forces. - ABC

As the drought tightens its grip on farmers across New South Wales, dormant apple and stone fruit trees in the Illawarra are about to wake up — and they will be thirsty for water.

For the Fahey family at Darkes Forest, south of Sydney, the impact of the drought on the Illawarra's last commercial orchard could be a sleeping monster.

Currently, their trees are in a resting state during winter, but as spring arrives the warmer weather will bring them to life and they will need water.

Where that water comes from is the issue.

"We'll dip into our water storage, but what we're concerned about is not getting the refill of that storage if there are no rain events," Glenbernie orchard owner Joanne Fahey said.

"We have enough water right now, but we're concerned about the coming months and going into summer how we will manage."

If the dams are empty and they cannot access water from neighbouring properties, it becomes a depressing situation of prioritising the orchard's big money earning crops and letting the rest go.

If times become desperate, the Faheys will have to buy water and truck it in.

"The trees will need water and that will increase as they develop fruit and it grows," Ms Fahey said.

Once the trees provide their fruit, they will then be put on reduced water to keep them alive, and Ms Fahey said "they won't be happy about it".

For many farmers, the effects of the drought are writ large in dirt paddocks, scarce feed and financial hardship.

For the Glenbernie Orchard, the impact will become apparent as the growing season kicks in and it could be just as significant as elsewhere in the state.

The farm is nestled above the Illawarra escarpment between Wollongong and Sydney, meaning that the drought is well and truly on Sydney's doorstep.

Diversifying to combat market forces and weather

The Fahey farm is the last Illawarra orchard to supply fruit to the major supermarket chains, but even they are planning to scale back that side of the business.

Joanne Fahey said the prices they are getting for their produce have dropped to the point where they have had to diversify the family farm to find income elsewhere.

"We can no longer survive on the income we get from retail chains," she said.

"The supply of fruit to them will reduce and instead we'll be doing more direct sales to customers visiting the farm.

"We've decided to go down the value-add track, so we're making things out of our apples."

The biggest by-product for the family has been cider, as well as juice, honey, jams and oil.

They are also looking at hosting large-scale events and functions.

"There are a lot of opportunities born out of the challenges from this heat and drought and market forces changing the structure of our income base," Ms Fahey said.

"Our kids are more interested in the farm because it's become more interesting rather than just growing fruit that goes in a truck and heads to the supermarket.

"They see it as more challenging to be in an environment where you can educate people and they're excited by cider."

The farm is fortunate to be based between two large cities, which gives them access to a large population of customers.

Specialised farms in more remote areas of the state are not as lucky.

"Although there are major challenges for us economically, it creates the opportunities for more generations to stay here and do some cutting-edge things," Ms Fahey said.


© ABC 2018

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