Citrus Country: Mildura, Australia

By Nick Gadd:

Eat an orange a day. Oranges keep the blues away, reads the large painted sign on the north wall of the former Sunraysia Citrus Management Company. On the right, the signwriter added a bunch of segmented oranges, like a Dutch still life. On the south side is a matching sign for lemons, reading Lemons add to life. Be in it! There’s no doubt about it: you are in citrus country.

Mildura is a regional city on the Murray River, which marks the border between Victoria and New South Wales, and without the river the city would not be here at all. In the late 1880s, two Canadian brothers, the Chaffeys, irrigation experts, moved to Victoria from California, where they had established successful fruit-growing colonies. They persuaded the Victorian government - after much political shenanigans - to allocate them 250,000 acres for a similar colony on the Murray.

The creation of Mildura was a remarkable feat of public relations. How else to explain the fact that droves of people from Britain, Europe and elsewhere threw up everything to travel to this non-existent settlement in a remote part of Australia? They were responding to an international advertising campaign that made shameless promises about the profitability and fertility of the land. Victoria had experienced a gold rush a few decades before: this was a fruit rush. 

Many would be disappointed. The Chaffeys were not as well capitalised as they claimed; their irrigation works were incapable of delivering as much water as was needed. Settlers had to clear their blocks of huge, stubborn mallee roots. There was no railway, making it impossible to transport the fruit to markets. And then, of course, there was the river, which proved an unreliable partner. In some years the Murray shrugged its mighty shoulders, swelled and flooded over the orchards and vineyards. In other years it turned its back, shrank to almost nothing, became a dusty gutter. 

The Chaffeys went bankrupt, resulting in a sensational public inquiry at which settlers accused the brothers of conning them. In spite of all that, the settlement survived. And through the extraordinary efforts of the remaining pioneers and their descendants, along with government support, a successful city based on irrigation did indeed develop.

I’m here in citrus season, and everywhere I go people press fruit on me: oranges, lemons, mandarins from their own trees. It’s not all citrus: today, farms producing grapes and almonds swallow vast amounts from the river.  Now the debate is: How much irrigation is too much?  “We’re OK for now, but when another drought comes, we’re stuffed,” a local greenie told me. Here, as in many parts of the world, how well the water is managed is the critical question for the future. 

Nick Gadd was writer in residence at the Mildura Writers Festival in July 2016. You can read more from Nick on his website Melbourne Circle: Stories from the Suburbs and follow him on Twitter. Nick was a contributor to Elsewhere No.02 where he wrote an essay on the ghost signs of Melbourne.

Elsewhere No.04 is published on 28 September 2016 – Order your copy here.