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Menindee jujube and grape growers halt season, while citrus hangs on amid drought and poor water conditions

By Saskia Mabin, Sunday August 25, 2019 - 08:19 EST
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Charlie Lombardo checks over some of the few oranges picked from his orchard. - ABC

Tony Lombardo and his brother Charlie have been growing fruit and vegetables on their land in Menindee for decades.

They have weathered serious conditions before and still managed to do business, but now the brothers are starting to question how much longer they will be able to continue while the drought persists and the poor quality of water from the Darling River affects how much they can grow.

"My old man's been here since the '60s. I left school and started doing farm work but it's not [been] easy over the last four years," Tony Lombardo said.

"I'd like to stick with it but … it's not going to be easy sticking with it for very long."

Water restrictions put in place to manage the drought have meant the brothers have not been able to grow vegetables this season.

Tony Lombardo said the poor quality of water from the Darling, which is the sole source of irrigation for his orange trees, has affected business.

"We get less fruit on the tree," he said.

"[The river] is not very healthy at all. It's salty, it's green … it's pretty terrible at the moment.

"You can put different stuff in the water [to treat it] but there's no substitution for fresh water — clean, fresh water. You can't beat that.

"And rain would be good."

For now, Tony and Charlie are continuing to pick the oranges they have grown, which will be sold within Australia and overseas.

The brothers are preparing to pick bunches of table grapes from their second farm on the other side of town in a few weeks time.

Closing the orchard for the year

Dave Baker manages the Menindee post office.

When he is not working there, he keeps busy running a drilling supplies business in Broken Hill and small farming projects on his 7-hectare property just outside of Menindee.

His latest project has been planting 100 Chinese-native jujube trees.

"They're sort of a drought tolerant red date. They've got a lot of health benefits. They produce pretty well in the heat, they can put up with extreme coldness," Mr Baker said.

Mr Baker sells dried jujubes at the post office to Menindee locals but had hoped to have enough fruit to start business on a larger scale.

He said that due to the drought and blue-green algae affecting water from the Darling River, this year has been a waste of time.

"The trees are fine at the moment, but come summer time we won't be able to water them. We're not allowed to water them," Mr Baker said.

"They'll survive, but we won't get the quality of fruit off them. I'll probably just close the orchard down for the year."

Despite a disappointing season, he has invested in more jujube trees with the aim of planting 500 in total.

He sees potential in tapping into Chinese grocery markets in Sydney and selling dried jujubes online.

Eventually, he plans to sell his jujubes to buyers in China during their off-season.

"I'll definitely stick with it. If they get the water right they'll be a good tree to grow here. I think there's a bit of a future here and (I can) employ a couple of people to pick them," he said.

"I've put a lot of effort, time and invested a lot of money into making this work. The only thing that's letting me down at the moment is the water."

'All we want is a fair go'

Nick Dichiera worked as an accountant in Adelaide and moved to a small farm in Menindee nearly a year ago for a change of scene.

He thought it would be nice to own some land on the water and to have the space to grow his own fruit and vegetables.

He now says riverfront living has not been exactly what he imagined.

"The idea was a healthier lifestyle — get out of the office and back on the land," Mr Dichiera said.

"The idea was to have some vines with some table grapes, but that's not going to happen because the water is just going to get too salty.

"I'm going to give up watering those. I've decided that it's not worth the electricity and the water.

"Sometimes you've got to call it. When we get a fresh flush I'll start again."

Mr Dichiera is growing garlic and green vegetables for himself.

He plans to wait out another year on the farm before re-evaluating his options.

"It is hard out here, but all we went is a fair go and a basic human right of a right to water," he said.


© ABC 2019

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