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Byron Shire
March 2, 2021

Houses don’t create jobs, farms do

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The Farm at Byron is a rare example of productive farmland being rescued from the jaws of housing development.

S Haslam

Covering farmland with houses is not a new idea, it’s been going on for centuries – as cities and towns expand. But as our climate dries out, we’re starting to realise that there’s not always an area ‘further out’ that can be sustainably farmed – and that means that we have a food security issue.

The Northern Rivers is a beautiful place to live. It has beaches and a nice environment, but part of the winning combination is the soil, farmland, climate and reliable access to the water that also make it ideal for primary production. In fact, the Alstonville Plateau and the Cudgen/Duranbah Plateau are so good they’re classified State Significant Farmland. The NSW government has just decided to put the new Kingscliff Hospital complex on top of the latter!

Stunning planning omission

‘What stuns me, is we plan for roads, water, shopping, housing etc but we don’t plan for where we are going to plant our food. In this ‘sustainable’ region we don’t identify where our food production is going to come from’, says Rose Wright from Regionality, who works across agriculture, agrifood and tourism with a key focus on helping farmers to innovate and diversify.

‘Covering the Northern Rivers with houses does not create jobs, it creates a demand for jobs. Once the tradesmen have left and new residents move in, they need work.

‘It is critical that farmland is kept for farming. Despite the widespread drought, we still have farmers here who are farming because they have access to water. We have a unique situation here. 

‘Although our area is small, compared to broadacre farming areas out west, it is worth protecting for our region’s food future, but also for our economic future – farms underpin our way of life and tourist industry’, she says.

Rebecca Zentveld from Zentveld’s Coffee agrees. She grows coffee in Newrybar, and says that we have had a decade of skyrocketing land values, with productive farmland being sold for growing only a house and garden, rather than primary production. 

Not many food bowls

‘There aren’t many real food bowls in Australia, and if you don’t grow food in these productive zones with a gentle microclimate, rich soils, natural springs and (until now) predictable rainfall, then where are we going to grow food?’, she asks.

The Northern Rivers is gaining recognition for growing sustainable, organic food (see northernriversfood.org). Showcased in great restaurants, or as value-added products, our local produce is a tourist drawcard, but there are also other important cultural, economic and environmental benefits to food production.

‘Plenty of us up here are thoughtful farmers open to new ideas’, she says. ‘We are implementing regenerative soil practices and understand that we need to nurture the soil microbes to build soil resiliency and carbon. At Zentvelds coffee farm we look after the soil first – with cover crops and nitrogen plants, mulch and cow poo. Our coffee trees and inter-row plantings have greened up with just that little rain – [making them] wonderfully resilient through the drought. Along with our considerate macadamia farming neighbour, we have regenerated the rainforest at the headwaters of Skinners Creek and have a healthy riparian zone of local tree species and lively wildlife habitat.We are bee friendly farmers – so much so we have our own coffee blossom honey!  I see our local food farmers being considerate to their land, looking after and creating wildlife corridors – with no multinationals, feed lots or monocultures, just relatively small lots of increasingly ecologically considerate farmers dotting our hinterland’.

Small scale farms

In fact the scale of the farms in our region is a major challenge as they are small lots and they are getting smaller, so they rarely have the scale to be able to tap into the central market system, as there is not enough turnover. 

Rose Wright says that the way to make it work in the Northern Rivers is to leverage the growth in organics (the fastest growing high value sector) and value add to the produce, and use the assets we have on farms to create diversification.

‘Just farming, picking and shipping to market is not that viable’, says Rose. ‘What we need to do, like Zentvelds or Brookfarm, is to process to a branded high-value product, and then sell it either to retail or wholesale. At the moment that is expensive and time consuming and is a massive gamble for small farmers. You don’t know what the opportunity will be. Micro, small scale and artisan producers have to spend a lot of time and money to overcome the barriers to entry.

Some of those barriers are regulatory, and it doesn’t help that different rules apply in Ballina, Lismore, Byron, Kyogle, and Tweed – every shire is different.

Regionality is working with the NSW office of small business commissioner to help small farms be profitable and thus maintain our economic capacity. When small producers value-add, they employ people in technology, marketing, sales, distribution, accounts and office jobs, for example.’

Ancillary uses

The way forward, according to Ms Wright, is for planning rules to support diverse income streams from activities ‘ancillary’ to primary production. As long as primary production is maintained, you should be able to serve coffee, have people stay on your property in cabins, sell your goods such as cheese, butter or milk from your property, do on-farm meat processing, and cooperate with other businesses. For example, a business that makes hand-creams using your product. 

Not every farmer would do it, but State land use planning should be developed to support that. The goal would be to develop a link between agriculture and tourism that would open up great opportunities state-wide, but would be a clear winner in the Northern Rivers: we need production and retail opportunities on farm, so that the consumer can experience the product, 

Right to farm

A second initiative is to acknowledge a ‘right to farm’; every development should set aside their own buffer zone to neighbouring farms. Anyone buying property should be given a notice that they are in a farming area and there may be noise (normally inconsistent with the right to quiet enjoyment), and anyone buying a lifestyle lot should realise that it’s a farming area, which means it has farming activities. 

These initiatives need not hold back housing development: there are many parcels of land that look like good farming land, but have limited productive capacity, and are more suitable for housing.

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