The table grape industry in New South Wales’ Menindee is surviving despite the drought, water security concerns and mass fish deaths which thrust the town into national headlines earlier this year. It is, however, certainly not thriving.
The Darling River town is the birthplace of the Menindee seedless variety, a type favoured by customers because of its size, taste and texture. For decades, local grape growers produced up to a million boxes a year. But a lack of water security caused some growers to step away from the once-thriving industry, but the region still had an estimated 22,000 to 25,000 producing vines.
While picking in the lead up to -and over Christmas- does not seem ideal to an outsider, grower Steve Howse said it was the perfect time for Menindee crops to be harvested: "Menindee has its own window of opportunity, so we obviously come in before the Sunraysia guys pick and we come in after the Queensland guys. If you can capitalise on that window, if you can grow your fruit to the quality that's required to make supermarkets, it really is quite a good opportunity and quite exciting to be involved in."
The grapes are sold to the Costa Group, Australia's largest horticultural company, and then to the major supermarket chains.
"They have a minimum size that you have to grow to and that's 17 millimetres," Howse told abc.net.au. "So we aim to grow a minimum berry size of 18 millimetres and the bunch needs to be clean, not too tight and without any markings on the berries."
Menindee Lakes is down to half a per cent of capacity and Howse said this could be the last year his vines produce any fruit. "At this point in town it's only our high security water that we're on 30 per cent allocation, so it really is quite low and Menindee was always, definitely a guaranteed position to get your water. This is all quite a bit of a shame, I believe a lot of it's just to do with the management."
Local resident Graeme McCrabb said there was still some optimism amongst growers that things will improve: “One of the stations that sold recently are talking about putting in another 5,000 to 10,000 vines in the future. They can't be planted this year with the water conditions. I think there's some hope that there's some smaller lots will start to pop up here in the next five to 10 years. If water security can be improved markedly, there's a big window for grapes still to be grown in Menindee."