Microbiology, psychiatric nursing and bus driving are all jobs Ron Snep has turned his hand to. That is until 25 years ago when this urban refugee and lover of wine established Welshmans Reef Vineyard - just north of Newstead and a stone’s throw from Lake Cairn Curran. “My wife, Julia, and I grew up in Melbourne and had the dream that a lot of people in the city have, which is to go to the country and make a living from the land.”
Ron and Julia had no idea about farming when they bought the property. “Our vineyard was the first in the area for 100 years so there was no background to call upon – we had to learn things the hard way,” says Ron. But after a few years they had built up a successful vineyard. They were also learning better ways to farm without the use harsh chemicals, which Ron had never liked using, so they transitioned to growing organically and are now fully certified.
On the farm, Ron still enjoys a diversity of work. “Wine making is a mix of art and science and you learn something new everyday. Especially in this industry; it’s a mixture of a people business, farming business and business business,” he says.
Walking the great expanse of the waterless Lake Cairn Curran, Ron reminisces about sailing his little 12 foot boat across its waters and remembers a time when the lake filled every year without fail. “You’d always know that you were going to have a great summer down there, with water available to muck around in,” Ron says wistfully.
But after years of little rain, Ron’s boat now lies in the shed gathering dust, waiting for the water to return. The pelicans, swans and ducks that flew over the house are now also just a memory for Ron, Julia and their three kids. “Those pelicans were beautiful birds flying above us and then, all of a sudden, they were gone. You realise just how important water is. Water is life.”
Ron conveys a real sense of humility when he talks about the place his livelihood has come to depend on.
“One of the things you realise, living on the land and in the country, is that you are custodians of the ground. You don’t really own it; you just manage it for the future.”
As Ron has watched water availability trickle away over the past decade, he’s witnessed a shrinking farming population. But he’s also seeing a greater appreciation of the value of water and farmers integrating conservation practices more.
Ron admits that if the vines were not as well-established as they are, his farm may have had to join the exodus. They have a small, two megalitre water entitlement and in the past, have purchased supplementary water from the Loddon River. In recent years though, continued low inflows have reduced water availability further. Ron thinks that this marks a permanent shift, but is confident his vineyard will remain viable. “The last two years we’ve not irrigated at all and, on the whole, the vines are doing well. I imagine they’re old enough with their roots down deep enough. With a bit of luck, they’ll pull through.”
Water or not, you’d never convince Ron to move back to the city. “I love living here. I love my job, love the people I work with and I love the environment.”
Story and photos by Verity McLucas, September 2009.