WITH its fields of silverbeet and neat rows of lettuce glistening in the sun, the farming enclave of Clyde on the Western Port plains doesn't look much like a battle zone.
But bearing down on the community from the north-west is a force that threatens not only the livelihood of the region's farmers but, food security experts warn, the long-term supply of fresh produce to feed thousands of Melburnians: urban sprawl.
Clyde is among several districts on the urban fringe emerging as flashpoints as the State Government fast-tracks plans for new development boundaries to accommodate a population expected to reach five million within 20 years.
However, a group of academics and town planners is warning the Government that plans to convert some areas, including the most fertile fields on the Western Port plains, into housing estates will severely undermine Melbourne's future ability to feed itself.
Dr Cate Burns, food security expert and research fellow at VicHealth, says Clyde is a microcosm of the greater perils facing all western cities as population growth, climate change, access to water and rising transport costs increasingly impact on our ability to put food on our tables.
Clyde, in the City of Casey, in Melbourne's far south-east reaches, is one of the most productive farming areas on the metropolitan fringe. And one of the most conflicted. New housing estates are already butting up against intensive market gardens and farming lots.
Urbanites regularly confront the stench of animal manure, and the rattle and rumble of heavy farm machinery working under bright lights long before dawn.
"We have to put chicken manure out every weekend and we get about 15 calls saying, 'Can't you do something about the smell?'" said market gardener Theo Schreurs, who grows spinach, rocket, leeks and celery for local and interstate markets.
Meanwhile, real estate speculation is rife, with agents already marketing properties as potential development bonanzas before boundaries are finalised.
Councils have been complaining that their alternative development proposals are being ignored and that the Department of Planning and Community Development has failed to consult with them. Even the farming community is split between the cash-in-move-out lobby and those who want to stay.
But for Dr Burns, the overriding question is: should the Government even be considering building houses on the fertile, highly productive fields of Clyde and its neighbours?
"The volume of food produced in the City of Casey and surrounding suburbs is enormous, worth in excess of $400 million and employing about 2000 people," she said.
"It makes no sense for the Government to reclaim arable land for urban sprawl at the same time it has a parliamentary committee investigating how we can guarantee a sustainable and secure food system for Victoria."
Her thoughts are echoed by Trevor Budge, adjunct professor at RMIT University and president of the Victorian Division of the Planning Institute of Australia.
In evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into sustainable food production, Professor Budge warned "the issue of food security is not owned by anyone".
He said no government department had responsibility for sustainable agriculture on the urban fringe.
"Too often the response from the Department of Primary Industry is that it is a market-driven situation and land will go to highest value, best use," said Professor Budge.
"The Department of Planning and Community Development sees land as a commodity.
"So food security is not the direct responsibility of any department or agency."
Vin Morris, agricultural officer at the City of Casey and Cardinia, believes the significance of the Western Port plains food bowl has been overlooked by planners.
"In Werribee, market gardens have been declared a food security zone, an area of agricultural significance, and given $20 million, but there is no vision for the Western Port plains," he said.
Mr Morris said if rezoning went ahead, buffer zones should be created between the urban and agricultural areas. "We need certainty for the people who will live there, we need certainty for the farmers who have to decide whether to reinvest."
But for Theo Schreurs, whose family has worked this land for 40 years, and many of the Clyde farmers, there will be no reinvestment. They want out.
"You can't afford to expand … and the size of the land we've got is not viable," he said. "If this is going to be part of the urban growth boundary then that is the retirement plan we thought we would never have."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.