Only a decade ago Menindee was a thriving irrigation centre, a major producer of table grapes and citrus.
Since then a decline in water security and quality has seen the corporates and most family-owned businesses pull out of the area, leaving acres of dead vines behind.
However, second-generation Menindee grower Charlie Lombardo is still there, one of the only Menindee irrigators left.
Mr Lombardo's family arrived at Menindee in the 1960s and started to grow vegetables and oranges, but in the 1980s and 1990s table grapes began to take off in the area and they soon became main income source for the family.
Today, Mr Lombardo said he can pick 100 pallets of grapes and 500 bins of oranges a year on his 20 hectares.
However, poor water quality due to low inflows to the Menindee Lakes meant last year he only harvested 80 pallets of grapes and 300 bins of oranges.
"We pump from the Darling River, but the challenge is when the water gets salty it damages the vine and the fruit," Mr Lombardo said.
"You're pumping sea salt really, then you don't have the quality and can't sell the grapes to the supermarkets."
Mr Lombardo had measured up to 1800 parts per million of salt in the water.
"Normally when it passes 1000 it's getting up there, when you get to 1800 you're on borrowed time," he said.
He explained that if Menindee did not receive regular inflows, the water in the lakes became stagnant, allowing for salt to build up.
However, large inflows could lead to an even more challenging situation for Mr Lombardo, as when the volume in the lakes reaches a certain trigger point large amounts of water can be released to supply downstream users.
In recent years water quantity, as well as quality, has obviously been an issue.
Mr Lombardo holds both a high security and general security water licence, but currently Lower Darling water users only have access to 30 per cent of their general security entitlement.
If it drops below 30pc, as it did in 2019, Mr Lombardo has to buy water in from the temporary water market to keep his vines going - often for sky-high prices.
Fickle fresh fruit market
The business is also vulnerable to fluctuations in the fickle fresh fruit markets. For the last four years prices have been very high for table grapes, up to $55 a box.
However, this year, an increase in supply coming out of Emerald, Queensland has meant prices have dropped and Mr Lombardo was offered just $22.50/box.
"When you have a good year for prices you really want to take advantage of it, but when we were getting $55/box we only picked 70 pallets (instead of 100) because the salty water meant some of the grapes weren't good enough," he said.
Mr Lombardo said if their water situation does not change the business will become unsustainable.
However, some believe there are still opportunities to be found in irrigating at Menindee, if the scale and product is right and water is used effectively.
Opportunity if the scale and product is right
Like the Lombardos, Paul D'Ettore's family has farmed at Menindee for generations but five years ago, after reassessing the business, Mr D'Ettore took a full-time job in Broken Hill.
However, he still owns the Menindee property and has a dream to return to the farm full-time.
In order to do so he has decided to focus on apricots and grapes and cut back on growing oranges.
"We've made the conscious decision not to crop something into summer, I just can't justify the amount of water it takes," he said.
Unlike oranges, which are harvested in April, apricots are picked at the beginning of November and table grapes are picked before Christmas.
"We grew 2.5 hectares of table grapes and roughly a hectare of stone fruit this year and I used 22 megalitres of water," Mr D'Ettore said.
"Last year I was still growing two hectares of oranges and at this time of year I had used up to 60ML."
Hitting the market at the right time
Mr D'Ettore said by losing the oranges his water use could come back in line with his high security water licence, 60ML, meaning he will not have to fork out for temporary water.
Targeting a niche market such as apricots was also a strategic move.
Mr D'Ettore sells as G and M Fruits into specialist grocers and has found a five kilogram box is able to return up to $100 at certain points of the year.
"We try to hit the Sydney market around the Spring Carnival racing week, when the demand for good, appealing fresh fruit rises because there are more corporate functions and people are out and about," he said.
He is also considering going organic, a step which he believes would not be difficult as now there is less fruit grown in the area, the pests and disease risks have also dropped.
"I don't spray insecticides and would rarely spray fungicides, so I think going organic would be an easy transition," he said.
"Even if the premiums are quite small, it doesn't matter because we're not increasing costs or decreasing yields.
"The benefit is demand, so if you have two products side by side, someone would buy ours first. Apricots in particular have a very short shelf life so that's important."
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