Disappointment over strategic agricultural land focus

A broader focus is required, when protecting peri-urban agriculture

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TOO RESTRICTIVE: Mount Dundeed beef producer Ann Bullen said she felt the criteria for strategic agricultural land was too restrictive.

TOO RESTRICTIVE: Mount Dundeed beef producer Ann Bullen said she felt the criteria for strategic agricultural land was too restrictive.

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Consultation, with few outcomes, is farmers' fear.

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Farmers on Melbourne's urban fringe have expressed deep disappointment at what they say is the narrow focus of plans to preserve strategic agricultural land.

They were responding to a Department of Environment, Land Water and Planning consultation paper paper, identifying strategic agricultural land on the outskirts of Melbourne.

"Many participants expressed concern about basing the assessment on current land uses and conditions," the consultation report found.

"Ongoing support for farmers and future farmers was constantly raised."

Most of the discussion focussed on water access and land capability.

"Feedback on the land capability criteria indicated participants felt it was too restrictive, by focussing on soil-based agriculture," the consultation report found.

"Participants were also concerned about the potential impacts of land, not considered as having high-value soil."

Questions raised

Victorian Farmers Federation Mornington Peninsula branch member Lisa Brassington said the consultation report continued to raise questions about the purpose behind the discussion paper.

"It feels like there was a lot of consultation, for not much outcome," Ms Brassington said.

"The common response is that the average peri-urban farmer is unsure about immediate future land use."

She said everyone she spoke with wanted to keep farming.

"In our district, farmers were disappointed their knowledge and skills, in terms of land management, were not valued.

"The report included climatic and geographical criteria, but not the anthropological and network value of farmers.

"A farmer today who wants to stay on the land tomorrow has upskilled."

Many had embraced the opportunity to diversify their farming enterprises.

"The fact they value the soil, the climate and access to water gives them the confidence to invest in themselves and their farms," Ms Brassington said.

"The wonderful aspect of succession planning and multi-generational farming is the handing down of skills and observations of a changing environment, and the ability to adapt to that environment."

She praised DELWP staff for being warm, welcoming and professional, especially in helping the Peninsula branch of the VFF to set up its discussion group to provide feedback on the draft criteria.

"It rallied our VFF branch to have a stronger voice," Ms Brassington said.

But the role of agriculture, in strengthening local economies, appeared to have been missed.

"It missed the fact agriculture underpins all the Green Wedge activity that occurs."

Ms Brassington called on industry bodies and farming advocates to engage directly with the Minister and department.

Greater protection

And a Geelong beef cattle producer says potential population growth for the city and Melbourne meant there was an urgent need for greater protection of strategic agricultural land.

Ann Bullen, Quarterford Angus Stud, Mt Duneed, said it was predicted Geelong's population could grow to 1 million.

"Any farm or conservation zoned land, that hasn't been earmarked for urban growth already, should be put under a moratorium until they work out how they are going to feed this growing population," Ms Bullen said.

It appeared the draft report on preserving agricultural land appeared to rule out areas that could be productive.

"Soil quality should not be the only factor that is being considered as to whether it is strategic agricultural land or not," Ms Bullen said.

"What DELWP considered as strategic agricultural land is way too restrictive; it needs to be expanded.

"Everybody flips about genetically modified crops, but there is being work done at Cornell University, (USA) on rice and soybeans that will grow in a hotter, drier climate.

"The universities are already working on that stuff and agriculture will adapt.

The focus on looking at any agricultural land should really be what would be suitable in 20 years time.

Mr Bullen said the issue of "food-miles" - how far the food had to travel before it is sold - needed to be addressed urgently.

"How far away do you want to bring your food from?" Ms Bullen said.

"I picked up a bunch of asparagus at my local supermarket, and it said 'Product of Mexico'

"How fresh is it? How much diesel did it take to freight that into Australia?"

Governments and planners needed to focus on proximity to ports and population, as well as rates.

"There's a rate burden of 25 per cent, before any other inputs, and that's not sustainable," Ms Bullen said.

"In a lot of those areas, that rate burden is killing that farm."

"We need an infrastructure and policy department that looks 20 years out, not just to the next election

Ms Bullen said she was also concerned about the loss of prime agricultural land to tourism ventures, particularly in the Surf Coast Shire.

"Ultimately, tourism is secondary to feeding your own population."

Comments ignored

And a senior executive with one peri-urban council, Yarra Ranges, said he was disappointed it appeared the local authority's comments were ignored.

Director of Social and Economic Development director James Collins said the report also failed to reference information provided by the council's Rural Advisory Committee.

"Yarra Ranges Council and RAC do not support any proposed planning changes that do not protect and support agricultural land use in its entirety," Mr Collins said.

"Council welcomes the next phase of planned consultation by the Victorian Government and will continue to advocate to protect the values of our Green Wedge, as well as supporting our farmer's right to farm."

Yarra Ranges Mayor, Tony Stevenson said agricultural production and activity provided more than 2000 jobs and an annual economic output of $640 million.

"There is a need for further research into the likely economic and social impacts on the sector of any proposed changes to planning controls on the agriculture sector in its entirety," Cr Stevenson said.

"Council appreciates the opportunity to participate in this process but is concerned the views of all participants are not accurately represented in the findings report."

Yarra Ranges RAC member and orchardist Kevin Sanders said his family moved out of East Doncaster, to the Three Bridges area, near Powelltown, in the 1970s.

"The government has decided it's okay to allow development to continue, in all these rural areas," Mr Sanders said.

"It's okay to continue to consume good agricultural, and that's just stupid."

He said he was disappointed the consultation paper didn't acknowledge the work done by the council and the RAC.

"The lack of foresight means they are just going to continue doing what they are doing, they have no intention of changing their current practices," he said.

"It's unlikely to be developed, but never say never - I was involved in the Green Wedge, in the Doncaster area, and it doesn't look much like Green Wedge now."

"The plan is hopeless, from an agricultural point of view, it skirts all the really big issues.

"If you travel around the world, agricultural space is paramount, it's valued, within the community.

"Here it's just another opportunity to take dirt from agriculture and turn it into a housing block."

Comprehensive review

Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the consultation was part of the government's comprehensive review of outer-suburban and peri-urban land - which would improve land use and assist decision-making in those areas.

The government worked with Agriculture Victoria and Deakin University, to compile and evidence base and inform criteria for identifying strategic agricultural land.

This included compiling information on soils, landscapes, access to water, climate and versatility of land and under different climate futures.

DELWP executive director, planning implementation, Nick Joveski, said Melbourne's food bowl had many competitive advantages, such as access to quality soils, recycled water, infrastructure and labour forces, but this proximity also brought real challenges.

"As our climate changes, it is vital we identify the best land to support food production for our growing city," Mr Joveski said.

Once criteria had been determined, stronger planning controls would be developed to protect agricultural land around Melbourne.

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