The horticultural foodbowl of the lower Murray has for decades been known for its vineyards, citrus and stonefruit orchards, but a global price shift has seen a new crop dominate the landscape, with big implications for Australia’s most precious commodity — water.

In 2022, as a global glut of wine sent grape prices plummeting, grower Brett Rosenzweig made the decision to pull out his vineyards in the South Australian Riverland and expand his existing almond plantings.

Mr Rosenzweig, whose family has grown wine grapes for three generations, is just one of many farmers turning to almonds to secure their futures, sparking remarkable growth in an industry that barely existed 20 years ago.

Brett Rosenzweig holds leadership roles with the Riverland Winegrape Growers Association, Central Irrigation Trust, and the Almond Board of Australia.(ABC News: Eliza Berlage)

The crop’s growing popularity has driven the lower Murray to become the world’s second-largest almond-producing region outside of California and brought in billions of dollars of revenue.

Almonds are now Australia’s most valuable horticultural export, bringing in more than $750 million worth of export revenue in 2022-23 alone.

By 2025, the farmgate value is expected to exceed $1.3 billion.

But the switch to almonds comes with a catch.

In addition to being the lower Murray’s largest horticultural crop by area planted, almonds are also the most water-intensive.

More than 45,000ha of almond trees grow along the Murray from Barmah in Vic to SA’s Murraylands.(Supplied: Almond Board of Australia)

For Mr Rosenzweig, the investment in almonds was a simple business decision; almonds are a more valuable crop than wine grapes, and demand for the nuts is expected to grow, according to industry projections.

In 2021, Victorian researchers found almonds sold for more than double the value of grapes per tonne.

Eight litres per almond

Almonds officially overtook wine grapes as the largest crop on Australia’s biggest river in 2021.

More than 45,000 hectares — or 22,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds — of the trees now grow along the lower Murray, from Barmah in northern Victoria to South Australia’s Murraylands.

Since 2021, another 1,890ha of the trees have been planted — more than wine grapes and citrus combined.

Almonds use an average of 12.5 megalitres of water per hectare, per year, according to the Almond Board of Australia  — more water than any other irrigated crop in the lower Murray.

Independent analysis by Victorian researchers shows nearly 7,000 litres of water are required to produce a kilogram of shelled almonds — and a single 1.2 gram almond requires more than 8L.

By comparison, 1kg of grapes requires about 740L of water to grow.

Producing one kilogram of almonds requires about 6,600 litres of water.(ABC News/Source: Journal of Food and Agriculture, 2021)

The nuts are also more valuable, which means growers can afford to spend more on water.

Even so, Mr Rosenzweig said accessing enough water to grow his crop was one of his biggest concerns.

“If we go into dry times, then the trend for temporary water pricing is normally upward,” Mr Rosenzweig said.

“So, then I have to decide, ‘How much [water] am I going to buy?’ But longer term … the risk is just physically being able to get water down the river at the time that all irrigators need it.”

The Southern Murray-Darling Basin is expected to have 20 per cent less water by 2060.(ABC News: Jessica Schremmer)

Mr Rosenzweig said he did not hold permanent water entitlements for all his farm’s trees, so each year he bought and traded water on the water market, where prices could be as low as $30 per megalitre in a wet year, but had risen to more than $800 per megalitre during drought.

The volume of water available for irrigation each year is set by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which is guided by the volume of water available in dams, as well as caps on extraction set by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

When less water is available, water prices can skyrocket. In 2020, the federal government projected water prices could rise to $1,075 per megalitre during dry years.

For permanent crops like almond trees, limited water availability presents a real challenge.

To stay alive, the trees need regular water. If the pumps turn off during drought, the trees die.

Drying up

In particularly dry years, there is also a risk that there will be no water available for sale at all.

According to climate change modelling, water is expected to become more scarce across the Murray-Darling Basin.

CSIRO senior researcher David Post said climate models were anticipating a 20 per cent drop in available water in the Murray-Darling Basin by 2060.

And as permanent plantings have increased over the past two decades, research shows water requirements are now at, or even over, capacity.

“[ABARES] calculated … that there was just barely enough water to maintain horticultural plantings in dry years — and that would be potentially making less water available for other agricultural users, particularly in dry years in the future,” Mr Post said.

Investing in almonds

The boom in almond plantings in the Murray-Darling Basin has been led by big business.

Australia’s largest almond grower is Canadian investment fund PSP Investments, with about 12,000ha under production, followed by ASX-listed Select Harvests, which grows about 9,000ha of almonds.

Other investment funds have been expanding their orchards.

Investment fund GoFarm is in the process of developing about 5,000ha of almond orchards at Katunga in Victoria and near Griffith in New South Wales’ Riverina.

Almond Board of Australia chief executive Tim Jackson said investing in almonds made sense.

“You’re talking about a product that traditionally has a premium price, is highly mechanised, so there’s no seasonal labour requirements like there are with crops that need to be hand-picked … it ticks a lot of boxes,” Mr Jackson said.

Almost 2,000 hectares of almonds were planted in the lower Murray from 2021-23.(ABC Rural: Else Kennedy)

Mr Jackson said the almond industry was investing in research to become more water efficient and make use of not just almond nuts but also almond hulls and shells, which were traditionally considered waste, but were now being used as biochar, stockfeed and to generate electricity.

“No grower sits here saying, ‘I’m just going to suck the river dry and grow a crop’ because they know that that’s not sustainable,” he said.

Among the big players, Australian Farming Services has planted 4,500ha of almond orchards in NSW and Victoria.

AFS managing director David Armstrong said his company’s investment in almonds was backed by an understanding of the “huge” and “growing” demand for the nut in China and India.

That demand has driven the company to sink $27.5 million into an almond processing plant near the Murray River town of Swan Hill to produce nuts exclusively for export.

Australian Farming Services managing director David Armstrong.(ABC Rural: Else Kennedy)

And it is not the only company focusing on exports.

As of 2022, 80 per cent of the almonds grown in Australia were exported.

Call for a moratorium

In a bid to rein in new farms competing for an increasingly limited water supply, the Almond Board of Australia has called for NSW and SA to follow Victoria’s lead and introduce a moratorium on issuing water use licences for new developments in the Lower Murray.

Almost 7,000 litres of water are needed to produce one kilogram of almonds.(ABC Rural: Else Kennedy)

A spokesperson for the SA government said the state was not considering imposing a moratorium but was continuing to “monitor irrigation development and manage any potential impacts on water deliverability”.

A spokesperson for the NSW government said the state would not be imposing a moratorium on new horticultural developments.

The “vast majority” of almond plantations were in Victoria and SA, the spokesperson said.

“Most of the water demand is also from Victorian and SA water users, and we believe the focus is best placed on the locations with highest demand.”

Key stories of the day for Australian primary producers, delivered each weekday afternoon.

Posted , updated