Access to water is key, South Gippsland grower says

Irrigation at Schreurs & Sons’ Tarwin Farm. Photo: Courtesy of Adam Schreurs, @AdamSchreurs

By David McAlpine

Increasing urbanisation is encroaching on traditional market garden areas on the fringes of Melbourne, with one grower expanding to new ground and an underutilised water supply in South Gippsland.

Schreurs & Sons is a third-generation family business based in Clyde, on the edge of Melbourne’s south-east suburbs, producing celery, leeks and baby leaf varieties of spinach, rocket and snow pea tendrils.

Dutch immigrant Joe Schreurs originally founded the farm at Dingley around 50 years ago and later relocated to Clyde to escape the wave of suburban development in the early 1970’s.

Now, the third generation of the family is facing a similar urbanisation dilemma to their forbears.

The older generation, who still owns the five Clyde properties, is selling the land for housing development as quickly as current business owners Adam, Ben and Chris Schreurs can find new land to relocate the business.

“Water’s what we look for first, that’s the hardest part to get. Water, then soil and climate, basically,” Adam Schreurs said.

With this in mind, the Schreurs purchased a 900-acre former dairy farm, over 100 kilometres away at Middle Tarwin in South Gippsland and have since converted around 160 acres of its fertile soil for celery production.

They had considered established irrigation districts such as East Gippsland but preferred the shorter distance from Middle Tarwin to their distribution facility at Clyde, Mr Schreurs said.

Mr Schreurs said they purchased water licences from farmers upstream on the Tarwin River, which enables them to pump water from the river into storage dams during the winter.

“We aim to be able to sustain ourselves out of the dam fully through the drier months of the year without drawing on the river, so we use about 3 megalitres per year per acre.”

Mr Schreurs said water allocation regulations currently prevent them from pumping extra water, beyond their normal allocation, from the river when it is in flood.

“If people are sensible about it we could pump the water when the river’s flooding, store it in dams and use it in the dry times,” he said.

Southern Rural Water (SRW) spokesperson said that although major modernisation investments were focused on existing irrigation districts, they were monitoring the expansion of these, with plans to automate meter reading in the region.

“There may well be an opportunity for SRW to be more proactive in working with industry and individual growers in the planning for the expansion of water-intensive industries into areas that have historically been used for other purposes such as dairy or beef production.”

Water trading is a strong focus for SRW and we will continue to look for ways to improve access to water via trading rules and systems.”

In planning for future expansions, Mr Schreurs was also interested in alternative water sources.

These included using desalinated water from the Victorian Desalination Plant or high quality recycled water from sewerage treatment facilities.

Southern Rural Water confirmed there were no plans to source water from the Victorian Desalination Plant for agricultural customers.

However, they were “continually talking with other water sector agencies and industry bodies to investigate all viable options to improve water security for farmers across all of its regions”.