Muster draws thousands, but for 363 days Deni relies on struggling agriculture

Deniliquin businesses adjusting to struggling agriculture: mayor

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When the convoy of cashed up utes depart, a thirsty town is left.

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VISITORS: Jackson Chesterfield from Canyon Leigh at the 2018 Deni Ute Muster. Picture: DAILY ADVERTISER

VISITORS: Jackson Chesterfield from Canyon Leigh at the 2018 Deni Ute Muster. Picture: DAILY ADVERTISER

The water crisis facing regional communities stretches well beyond the farm gate, with many businesses feeling the pinch of the prolonged drought.

Deniliquin recently experienced an injection of cash when about 20,000 people attended the famous Deni Ute Muster last weekend.

Organisers estimate the event contributes $1 million directly to the Deniliquin economy through their use of businesses and contractors while $6 million is estimated to be spent in the region by festival goers annually.

But after two days the celebration ends and the utes depart - a convoy of cash trailing dust, leaving a thirsty town in their wake.

In 1998 the festival was created as a way to boost a town "struggling with a crippling drought [where] the main form of income for the town was drying up with it", the Deni Ute Muster website states. And this year the festival was needed as much, if not more, than ever.

Businesses are feeling the affects of the drought Edwards River mayor Norm Brennan said, and unfortunately as helpful as the muster is, two huge days cannot make up for 363 days of a diminished agricultural industry.

He said almost every business in Deniliquin was impacted in some way by the drought, whether they directly worked in agriculture or simply relied on residents having a bit of disposable income to spend.

"I think only business that isn't affected is Centrelink," he said.

"You'll find businesses had a bumper weekend for the Ute Muster and it's great see a lot people about, we had nearly 20,000 people out here.

"It's enormous but it's one weekend a year, the agricultural industry is there 365 days a year and it's imperative they are strong.

"Deniliquin is heavily reliant on agriculture, it was created as an agricultural area, especially an irrigation agricultural area."

Two years of prolonged drought and zero water allocation, have seen farmers tighten their belt, and incomes become far less disposable in the community.

This week major Deniliquin employer Murray Irrigation announced a wholesale review of business operations.

Picture: DAILY ADVERTISER

Picture: DAILY ADVERTISER

The company, which employs roughly 150 people, stressed the review was not focused on job cuts but about finding efficiencies and creating a more sustainable business.

Like many businesses in drought-affected areas, the company is having to adjust.

Chairman Phil Snowden said that two years of drought had taken its toll on farmers and their communities, which had in turn placed cost pressures on the business.

The announcement came a week after the board announced its intention to sell precast-concrete manufacturing business MILCast, so it could focus on its core business of water.

Mr Snowden said the company had also established a Drought Response team to work with customers and agencies.

"Murray Irrigation's job is to deliver water to farmers - when there is no water, that obviously impacts on the demand for our service," he said.

Mr Snowden said while some services remain, the company must adjust the business to reflect the downturn in agricultural productivity in the region.

LONG ROAD AHEAD: Each year the Deni Ute Muster brings tens of thousands of visitors into Deniliquin, but the town and the agricultural industry is doing it tough. Picture: DAISY HUNTLY

LONG ROAD AHEAD: Each year the Deni Ute Muster brings tens of thousands of visitors into Deniliquin, but the town and the agricultural industry is doing it tough. Picture: DAISY HUNTLY

"We must also look to drive efficiencies internally," he said.

"The review will look at all facets of the business including costs, revenue, service delivery, investments and staffing levels."

Cr Brennan said it was not surprising the company was reviewing their operations, and said they weren't alone in looking for ways to drought-proof their business.

"In the current climate I think it's very prudent to look at the future," he said.

"Their business is obviously moving water for clients and the sad state of affairs is that there is less water to move."

Cr Brennan was hopeful there would be none, or few, redundancies at the company.

He said without rain and water allocations, the agriculture industry on which Deniliquin was built suffers and so does the town.

I think only business that isn't affected is Centrelink...Deniliquin is heavily reliant on agriculture, it was created as an agricultural area, especially an irrigation agricultural area - Norm Brennan Edwards River mayor

"At moment when look water figures, the Hume Dam is less 40 per cent," he said.

"This time last year it was at 50 percent.

"We're in worse situation were compared to last year."

Cr Brennan said the lack of rain was only one factor contributing to the current tough situation.

He said the zero water allocation and, what he sees as, water mismanagement by the government had caused a lot of pain in the region and it's agriculture industry.

Picture: DAISY HUNTLY

Picture: DAISY HUNTLY

He said the community felt like they were collateral damage, victims of a larger political play and plan.

"The community overall getting frustrated with the lack of decision making," he said.

"We've argued years since 2012 when the [Murray Darling Basin Plan] was introduced, even before, that we need to get balance into plan because it is not balanced.

"It's weighted towards environment first and the rest is collateral damage."

Murray Irrigation chief executive Phil Endley said the review was part of a two pronged approach to try and ensure the company's long-term sustainability.

The other prong, he said, was advocating for improved water resources for the region.

"We're calling for an early season commitment of 200GL to be made available to the region every year," he said.

"Improved water certainty will provide some respite for farmers who are feeling the pain of on-going dry conditions.

"This certainty would allow them to better plan and manage their farming business, and in turn, secure food and fibre for Australia.

"We are committed to the region and our customers, and must ensure that we balance service levels with costs while working to secure future farming businesses."

Cr Brennan said the community needs rain, but moreso, they need water allocated to them.

"Really someone has to be held accountable and not the drought, the drought isn't accountable for it all, it's mismanagement," he said.

"The problem is not going to go away unless someone shows leadership."

Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud was contacted for comment but did not respond.

This article first appeared in the Border Mail

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