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Covering the Goulburn and Murray valleys

Irrigation channels come and go

One generation builds the channels, another generation fills them in.

March 7, 2013 4:04am

John Rendell former farmer with Greg Rowlands and the channel he built with a horse team.


The irrigation channel that John Rendell and his father built 60 years ago is now being filled in.

The father and son worked an eight-horse team harnessed to ploughs and scoops to make the channel on a formerly dry Balkamaugh property in the 1940s.

John, who is 90 and now retired and living in Shepparton, recently visited the old family farm with Country News to inspect the channel that will soon be no more under modernisation.

He is happy to see the channel go. ‘‘That’s progress,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m very happy to see the farm is going ahead. That’s the main thing.’’

John’s father, Dave, bought the square mile grazing property in 1920 after moving from the Yielima district.

‘‘He was keen to see irrigation come,’’ John said.

John attended Balkamaugh North Primary School, about a mile from his home, and after attending Numurkah High School went onto the farm to work.

‘‘It was just accepted I would work on the farm,’’ he said. He couldn’t recall much discussion.

‘‘The parents just took it that this was going to happen. It was their decision to make.’’

The work to extend a channel from the Mulwala weir into the Numurkah district was interrupted by World War II which also saw John spend more than two years in an army medical unit in Darwin.

Shortly after the end of the war work resumed on the extension of the irrigation system and his father won a contract for the construction of the channel through their property.

Using an eight-horse team of big draught horses pulling a single-furrow specialised plough, followed by a scoop, they constructed the bank, berm and cut during the summer.

They worked a continuous circuit scooping out the dirt and dumping it on the bank.

Dave was the driver and John would operate the scoop.

‘‘It took us about four or five days to do 10 chain (200m).

‘‘We would get them up at 6am and feed them. We’d go inside for breakfast and then harness them in a four plus four pattern.

‘‘We fed them mostly oaten chaff and hay.’’

The site supervisor would ride his bicycle out from Numurkah each day to inspect the works.

After the State Rivers channel was built they had to start on their own internal farm delvers.

John recalls most of the channels were built by contractors who would often sleep in horse-drawn caravans when they were on the job.

After the war the Commonwealth divided up land between Cobram and Picola for soldier settlement with sufficient water to irrigate one quarter of each property. The irrigation followed in the areas serviced by railway lines, ostensibly to transport produce to markets.

The family established a dairy farm, initially milking by hand, but reverted to sheep and cropping and John eventually took over.

He managed the farm for about 30 years before selling it in 1979.

Greg and Karen Rowlands now own the property on Katunga-Picola Rd, and in recent years John has become a friend of the couple, who want to develop it into a large-scale farm with more efficient irrigation.

The Rowlands have successfully applied upgrades through two on-farm efficiency programs, and through the NVIRP-Connections program will see the removal of about 2.8km of Goulburn-Murray Water irrigation channel splitting their property. They will resume ownership of the recovered land.

The channel that John built could be filled in before the end of the year.

Greg said John had been helpful in passing on the agricultural history of the farm and helped identify the most productive areas.

John is delighted to see so much investment on the farm.

Since leaving the farm, he has been sowing seed of a different kind — taking on lay Christian ministry in the region before retiring to live at Kialla with his wife Anne.

One son is a vet, one is a professor of psychology and one is Rob Rendell, known in northern Victoria for his Bendigo-based consultancy business, RMCG. His daughters are a teacher, administrator and social worker.

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