California drought leaves Australian almonds in demand

California drought leaves Australian almonds in demand

With the US state of California now in its fourth year of drought, innovations created in Australia could provide a lifeline for struggling farmers.

Compared with the world's biggest producer of almonds, Australia's industry runs a distant second.

But with the US state of California now in its fourth year of drought, innovations created domestically could provide a lifeline for struggling farmers.

Rhiannon Elston reports.

When Tony Spiers bought his first almond orchard in South Australia's Riverland region 40 years ago, the Australian almond industry was young.

And so was he.

"My memories tell me that the thing I enjoyed about it most was the fact that they seemed to be drought-proof. And coming from a dryland farm, that was quite an attraction to me."

At first, it appeared to be true.

But like thousands of farmers across the country, Mr Spiers could not avoid the devastating grip of the millennium drought, which began in 1995 and continued for more than a decade.

"And that cost us pretty dearly, actually, but the trees are permanent plantings, and they have to be kept alive, so we can't turn the water off. So we just had to pour whatever resources we had into purchasing water."

From the toughest time came a major innovation.

That is, new "drip" and "surge" irrigation methods, designed to make the most efficient use of water.

Both methods allow water to drip out of pipes at a trickle pace, reducing evaporation and drainage.

"That was quite a change to the industry, and a lot of the older growers were reluctant to put in drip irrigation. But the trial work done by the Almond Board of Australia had sort of proven that it worked."

Three fourths of Australian-grown almonds are destined for export, and they are in demand.

Last year, Australia overtook Spain as the world's second-largest exporter.

The world's top producer remains the US state of California.

Its industry has been instrumental in helping Australian farmers grow and prosper, as Almond Board of Australia chief executive Ross Skinner explains.

"Well, we've been the beneficiaries of a lot of their world's best practice. So, over the years, we've adopted most of their practices and equipment and production systems."

Now, he says, with prolonged drought badly affecting California -- where 80 per cent of the world's supply is produced -- Australia is paying back that help in reverse.

"Given that the US has gone into a drought period, the most severe in their history, they're now looking to Australia for the technologies that we've developed to improve water-use efficiencies."

University of Adelaide plant breeder Michelle Wirthensohn was invited to California this year to share her industry knowledge.

She says it will take time and money for some Australian techniques to become widely utilised there.

"Some of their farmers still use flood irrigation. They do have a lot of open-channel schemes in California. And I'm pretty sure, if they could get, perhaps, government support to help buy the infrastructure -- you need to buy thousands of kilometres of drip line, obviously, and put it out -- I'm pretty sure they'd be able to take it up fairly quick smart, yeah."

Meanwhile, back home at her lab in Australia, Michelle Wirthensohn is busy looking for more ways to conserve water during production.

"Part of the breeding plan, we're trying to produce cultivars yielding even more with the same amount of water, so they're more water-use efficient."


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