SA Government LogoState Library of South Australia logoDownstream, the River Murray in South Australia
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Irrigation and exploitation: Vineyards and Orchards

Vineyards and fruit blocks were first developed in the district of Renmark with the beginning of the Chaffeys' irrigation colony. Settlements followed at Berri, Barmera, Lyrup, Loxton, Pyap, and Waikerie, and today the Riverland produces wines, fruit and nuts for domestic and overseas markets.

Initially, extremes of weather, unsuitable crops and poor economic conditions almost ruined the early fruit settlements. The Bank Crash in the 1890s saw many people abandon the land, leaving limited labour to harvest produce. Those that stayed on developed the blocks to the extent that in the early 1900s oranges, raisins and currants were being exported to England.

In January 1905 a heatwave destroyed bumper grape crops in Renmark necessitating the replanting of many vines, creating years of setbacks. Heavy frosts, unseasonable rain, windstorm and hail also caused heartache for the growers.

The tenacity of pioneers, new methods such as pest management and frost protection techniques, and the development of more appropriate crop varieties, saw the Murray Valley eventually become established as a major fruit-growing region. Much of the land was developed after the First and Second World Wars with the Soldier Settlement Schemes opening up new tracts of land to irrigation.

Picking and processing the fruit was a very labour intensive activity attracting thousands of casual and seasonal workers. These days many of the processes are mechanised with harvesting and cutting machines, although some picking, especially for table fruit, can only be done by hand. Fruit for processing, like wine grapes, is mostly harvested mechanically.

Today, vineyards, citrus, fruit and nut orchards cover approximately 30,000 hectares of irrigated land and produce one third of Australia's wines and citrus fruit. Up to 90 per cent of South Australia's citrus, stone fruits and nuts are produced in the area. Angas Park, Australia's largest producer of dried tree fruit, has a plant in Loxton employing a large team of full-time and seasonal workers.

The Riverland has also become the largest wine-producing region in Australia and most major Australian wine companies source grapes from the area. The Riverland Wine website provides more information about Riverland wineries.

There are some threats to the continued success of Riverland crops. Increasing salinity and demands on water resources are major issues for the future potential and development of these vineyards and orchards. The political and environmental implications of this are enormous. Correcting salinity is an expensive and time-consuming problem; in the meantime some water and land resources may become unusable. The people who depend on the River Murray for their livelihood are addressing these problems and have done so since the real signs of salinisation were recognised in the 1920s.

Further Reading

Burdon, Amanda. The Murray River, [photography by] Bill Bachman Terrey Hills, N.S.W. Australian Geographic, 2000

Apricot Cutting, Berri
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Fruit-growing : the settler's opportunity
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Grapes for the dried fruit industry
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Interview with Alfredo Floramo
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Interview with Iolanda Devito
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Interview with Jessie Merle Hall
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Interview with Mrs. Bates
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Irrigation of citrus trees at Berri
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Making a home in the fruit-growing settlements on the R
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Peach picking at Renmark
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Picking oranges at Renmark
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Sun drying raisins at Renmark
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