Fears for the future of Melbourne's peri-urban farms

Future peri-urban farming fears expressed


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FARMING CHALLENGES: Bulla cereal and oilseed grower Alan McKenzie faces multiple challenges, in farming in Melbourne's peri-urban northern suburbs.

FARMING CHALLENGES: Bulla cereal and oilseed grower Alan McKenzie faces multiple challenges, in farming in Melbourne's peri-urban northern suburbs.

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A Bulla farmer expresses his fears about the future of peri-urban farming.

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A Bulla crop grower says he can see little future for farming in the Sunbury area, despite state government assurances it'll protect Melbourne's strategic agricultural land.

The state government has proposed greater planning controls to ensure agricultural land is protected from overdevelopment.

Alan McKenzie grows wheat, barley and canola on 160 hectares, about 30kilometres north of Melbourne, near Tullamarine airport.

"We used to have 100-150 farms in the 1960s; we are down to four or five, the rest have sold and gone, because it's too bloody hard," he said.

The government has released findings of the community engagement process for protecting and strategic agricultural land, within a 100-kilometre radius of the central business district.

Read more: Disappointment over strategic agricultural land focus

During the 2015-16 financial year, the area produced 10 per cent of Victoria's gross value of agricultural production, including 59 per cent of the state's vegetables.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the government intended to re-write planning controls, to protect peri-urban agricultural land.

There were more than 400 online and written submissions, and 800 people attended consultation sessions on the discussion paper, put together by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning

Mr McKenzie said the consultation report failed to answer his concerns.

"They are saying this land has to be farmed, and that's all there is to it - well, that's bulldust," Mr McKenzie said.

"You have to work out how the land is going to be farmed.

"It's going to have to look after the social, economic and environmental outcomes, not only for the community but also for the farmer."

He said it was evident the committee had cherry-picked the results of the survey.

"It's a committee that's been set up, and organised by people who know nothing about farming," Mr McKenzie said.

"The consultation report says nothing; it summarises information provided by public servants and those who don't have skin in the game.

"You need to discount the views of those who don't have skin in the game, their views are important but they are not as important as the people who have skin the game."

Read more: Right-to-farm still needs defending, say Melbourne's green wedge primary producers

He said farmers in the Sunbury area faced multiple restrictions, including not being able to spray with fixed-wing aircraft, an increasing rate burden and complaints about moving heavy machinery.

"It's very rare we go on the road with an oversized agricultural machine and don't get abused," Mr McKenzie said.

"That abuse is either the horn being tooted at us, finger signs, or - in some instances - they want to stop and remonstrate with us, on the side of the road."

He said "urban dwellers" had no idea about farming, as there was very little education about its role by government.

He said he cropped the area, as it was the only effective way of controlling weeds, such as artichoke, blackberry and boxthorn.

But that was made difficult because he couldn't use a fixed-wing aircraft and there were restrictions on aerial spraying by helicopter.

"You can hardly walk, let alone spray, with a ground rig, you can't do it," he said.

"It coincides with an area, which probably has more weeds in it than the rest of Victoria put together."

The state government had pushed weed control back onto the local council, which didn't want to do it, because of cost.

Mr McKenzie said it appeared authorities had a very limited view of the types of agricultural production, which could occur in the peri-urban area.

"They say we should all be producing meat here, or products that should be sold at community markets, that's their objective," Mr McKenzie said.

"Now, how the hell does every place produce stuff that is going to be sold at a community market?"

Other proposals, such as using storm runoff, or recycled water, were long term projects.

"When I queried DELWP about soils that don't have any depth to them - out here our topsoils are somewhere between 80-90mm thick - they said we could thicken those by using the mulch the urban dwellers create.

"We are probably talking 10-15 years to happen, but when everyone is in strife now, and there are only a few people left farming, there has to be something happen now."

There was currently no infrastructure to collect stormwater.

"There is no infrastructure to collect that water, and you have a massive time lag, between all the development happening and dams going in."

Rates were the other aspect, which weren't addressed in the consultation.

"We are paying rates that are influenced by the urban dwellers and developers, and those rates don't bear any relationship to the productivity off the land, none at all," Mr McKenzie said.

He said no-one seemed to be interested in the argument that farmers should be paying rates on the house and curtilage only.

"You can only say they are serious when they say they're are going to do away with rates on farmland

"They are never going to do that, not while my bum points to the ground."

A DELWP spokeswoman said 300 farmers had been consulted, during the engagement process.

More than 400 online and written submissions were received as well as extensive feedback from six community workshops.

"The farming community's on-ground knowledge and insight will help shape how we identify agricultural land and inform the development of tighter planning controls that will safeguard Melbourne's green wedges and peri-urban agricultural land," the spokeswoman said.

"During extensive consultation, we heard that people wanted to prioritise the ability to farm and asked for clearer guidance on what land uses are allowed within agricultural areas.

"Other goals included more support for farm businesses, protection for environmental and natural values.

"We also heard that access to water, and the quality and cost of water is important to support successful farms."

All feedback received during the consultation process was now being considered.

"Planning controls are just one part of a much bigger picture, and we will continue to engage closely with farmers and the local community throughout this process," the spokeswoman said.

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