[Kym McHugh has held the position of Mayor of Alexandrina for the past eighteen years. He’s currently President of the South Australian Local Government Association and a Life Member of the South Australian Country Fire Services and previously Chair of the SACFS Board. He tells his story to Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh.]
I’ve always lived at Mount Compass. Born at Victor Harbor Hospital, went to Mount Compass Area School, then to Willunga High School. My family were dairy farmers, and we still are. The farm’s about halfway between Goolwa and Mount Compass. I met my wife, Heather, at Willunga High School. She didn’t realise it at the time but I was pretty keen. I knew her for about three or four years before we got married. That was in ’72 and I always say it was one of my better ideas. We have two sons and a daughter and now eight grandchildren. Our daughter lives just the other side of Strathalbyn, still nice and close, and I’m very fortunate in that our two sons are at home on the farm. It’s a real family partnership. My wife’s also very much involved, doing the bookwork and rearing calves. Plus we’ve diversified. We’ve now got a beef cattle and cropping property between Finniss and Milang where we run a few head and grow wheat, barley, canola, lupins and beans. I love it. There’s nothing better than getting on the header during harvest or at seeding time though, only just recently, we were down there fighting a bushfire. It was a bad day. We had a lot of Country Fire Services people and their trucks helping out and my sons and I have a couple of Land Cruisers with water tanks on them. They’re pretty handy. They’re a bit quicker around the place than the fire trucks.
Anyhow, after I finished high school I went straight on the farm. Back then we were milking about sixty head and these days we’ve got about two hundred and thirty head. Each morning, I get up at half past five to do the milking but, because of my commitment to local government, I’m not often there for afternoon milking. Like this afternoon, I’m off to Adelaide to meet up with a couple of politicians and visit two councils. But mornings I do my bit. I keep in touch with the cows, the farm, the family – and I listen to the news. Actually, just this morning they were talking on the radio about the future of the diary industry. It’s not profitable at the moment. Feed and labour costs are going up while the price of milk is going down. They said it won’t be long before people start getting out of the industry. If that happens, you’ll lose the mass volumes of milk. Then you’ll start losing processors and, when the processors are gone, people like Coles and Woolworths will take over and they haven’t been of much help to the little ‘servo’ or the corner grocer or the local butcher or the small family businesses, have they?
In other countries, they don’t allow their big companies to monopolise so much of the market. The Yanks wont even allow it. In America the larger companies are only allowed a certain market share. So it’s making it hard, very hard, because we all have to make a dollar but if there’s no locally produced milk, where’s it going to come from? China or somewhere. The thing is, we’ve got a lot of keen young people wanting to be involved in the diary industry. Just as an example, Mount Compass Area School, along with other schools throughout the Fleurieu, has got a tremendous agriculture course. Take ‘cows for careers’. That’s where dairy farmers lend calves to the schools and the kids help rear them. Then there’s groups like the Young Farmers at Mount Compass. They’re very strong. In fact they were supposed to be having a meeting today but it was cancelled because they just lost one of their members in a vehicle accident.
So there’s a few things for us in the dairy industry to think about, isn’t there? But as far as my life-passions go, apart from family and the farm, ‘community’ is definitely a strong one. At one time I was on the Mount Compass School Council and I was, and still am, involved in things like the footy club, the Lions Club, RSL and the tennis club. Actually, when I was on School Council I was the local parliamentary representative! As part of that I had to roll up twice a year to what, in those days, was known as the Port Elliot and Goolwa Council and give them a report on how the school was going. Then, when a long serving female councillor was about to retire, a good mate of mine told her that I’d be keen to get in to Local Government. Of course, once the word was out, that was it. Though I haven’t regretted a minute.
The old Port Elliot and Goolwa Council amalgamated and it’s now known as Alexandrina Council. It covers 1,800 square kilometres. It takes in Port Elliott, Middleton, Goolwa, Hindmarsh Island, around the lake to Clayton Bay, Milang, Langhorne Creek, then back up to Strathalbyn and across to Mount Compass. It’s got a population of around 24,000. But what I enjoy about Local Government is being involved in creating something that the community will be proud to leave to our kids and their kids. With having the river and the lakes within our boundary, there’s a great lifestyle to be had down in this area. We can’t help but to develop. We don’t have to get out and attract people. They just come. But we don’t want to then ruin the character of our towns or our heritage or the environment by overdoing it.
The Murray River and the lakes are just so crucial to us, economically, socially and environmentally. Everything’s connected, from irrigating the vines at Langhorne and Currency Creeks right through to fishing and tourism. And it’s all to do with the water so we must be careful how we manage it. As an example, during the last drought we saw the biggest dairy in the district close down. The river water they’d tapped into got too salty and before long it had disappeared. The vignerons couldn’t even get to the water so their vines had to go without for a whole season, and the water in Lake Albert’s still too salty for irrigation. The first area effected was down around Mundoo Island. Colin Grundy was carting water to his cattle for months until he eventually had to start selling off his herd. He’s just one example. At Clayton Bay we had an aquifer recharge system where we pumped water out of the river and into the aquifer. But then the water we were putting in to the aquifer got to be of such poor quality that, in the end, it just wouldn’t work anymore. So they ended up having to lay a community pipeline from further up the river down to townships like Langhorne Creek, Clayton and Milang so they could get decent water to their homes, vineyards and cattle.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe that our future is good and sound, especially now with having the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in place. It’s taken a hundred years to make that happen and even though it doesn’t cut in until 2019, it’s a huge step forward. It’s something that gives us confidence for our future. Yes, there will be droughts again but we’ll be better placed because of the experiences we had during this last one. There’s a lot of efficiencies that can be made in the system. We can still improve the management of our wetlands and our irrigation practices. The thing with the wetlands is that, in their natural ecosystem, they get flooded in the wintertime and dry out in the summer. But, because we’re now artificially holding the river at higher levels, some of the wetlands are flooded all the time. It all comes down to the way they manage the pool levels between the different locks. They should be able to manipulate those levels and divert the water into a wetland where it can sit for a period of time before they close it off and let it dry out naturally.
As for improvements in irrigation practices, they use drip irrigation now or micro irrigation. The old part of Langhorne Creek is on the floodplain so, when the Bremer River floods, nature helps out by flooding the vineyards. When that happens the moisture soaks deep down in to the soil which limits the amount of irrigation they have to use later on in the season. They’re also mulching with straw and other things to conserve moisture. Over on our property at Finniss, we’re trying to improve the soil by having better farming practices. By rotating our grain crop with lupins and beans we’re putting nitrogen back in to the soil. There’s also been big changes in the way people crop. These days, we direct-drill the seed in to the soil and we maintain stubble retention and by not ploughing and harrowing and working the soil so much you’ll also conserve moisture.
But I cannot underestimate the importance of the river to all of this, especially to our fishing and tourism industry. The river is beautiful. People just love going out on it. You’ve got the houseboats. There’s the old paddle steamers. There’s so much heritage and history surrounding the river. We are just so fortunate, and I get quite annoyed when I see and hear politicians, of all persuasions, saying how we’re in all this financial trouble. How bad everything is. Woe is me. No wonder people are losing confidence. They cop it all the time. Look, we’ve some good stories too, and they’re not only just here around Goolwa, the river and the lakes – they’re everywhere, and that all comes back to confidence and passion. If you build a positive mind-set in people then others will soon pick up on it. Simple as that.
Yes, there are a few challenges out there but, for us in the Alexandrina Council area, it all comes down to having a healthy river. If you’ve got a healthy river you’ve got a healthy tourism and fishing industry. With improved water practices in viticulture, cropping, grazing and dairy farming you’ve got a healthy agricultural industry. If you’ve got those things going for you then you’ve got a community with a healthy mind-set that’s positive about its future, and that’s what I’m about.