The fertile fringe
THERESE Schreurs' celery farm is about to be buried under concrete and bitumen ? and she couldn't be happier. Two of her family's properties at Clyde, near Cranbourne, are among some of Melbourne's key market gardens rezoned in 2010 for the city's newest south-eastern suburb.
THERESE Schreurs' celery farm is about to be buried under concrete and bitumen ? and she couldn't be happier. Two of her family's properties at Clyde, near Cranbourne, are among some of Melbourne's key market gardens rezoned in 2010 for the city's newest south-eastern suburb. THERESE Schreurs' celery farm is about to be buried under concrete and bitumen - and she couldn't be happier. Two of her family's properties at Clyde, near Cranbourne, are among some of Melbourne's key market gardens rezoned in 2010 for the city's newest south-eastern suburb.Casey Council resisted the move, arguing that the sandy loam soils that produce much of Melburnians' daily greens should be set aside for growing food, not houses. Therese Schreurs and her husband Tom (pictured) disagreed. The inclusion of 120 hectares of their property within the city boundary immediately boosted the land's value five-fold. The windfall will help the business, which the Schreurs' son and nephews are keen to continue, to stay competitive through new technology and relocation."The general public talks about suburbs gobbling up farming land. It's not that, it's progress and it's our business progressing to the next generation," Therese Schreurs says.Tension over the development of Victoria's most productive horticultural areas at Clyde is just one crack opened by an emerging faultline in Australian public policy over farmland and how we use it. That faultline runs between the need to farm and the right to capitalise on farmland. The argument is repeated in the rows over coalmining and coal seam gas extraction in Queensland and New South Wales, and the impact of lifestyle blocks on farms in peri-urban areas around all Australian cities.It is leading to unusual political rifts and alliances as governments, parties and organisations such as the National Farmers Federation divide internally, and the likes of shock jock Alan Jones share protest platforms with the Greens against coal seam gas.The Victorian debate has focused on the loss of farmland to sprawl and subdivision, and the clash between working farmers and their new lifestyle neighbours.Planners say much is at stake in the issue of farming versus urban residential development around Melbourne. A substantial portion of Australia's most fertile farmland is already within Melbourne's expanded urban growth boundary. Academic and specialist consultant in urban expansion Ian Sinclair says that ongoing sprawl threatens the 70 per cent of Victoria's fresh vegetable production that still occurs in and around Melbourne.The bounty of farmland on Melbourne's fringe and just beyond can be found every day in Coles and Woolworths. In the early-morning hours, trucks from Tyabb, Clyde, Pearcedale, Devon Meadows, Cranbourne and Werribee South deliver freshly picked fruit and vegetables to the distribution centres of the two major supermarkets. On a recent morning in the Woolworths Mulgrave centre, there were leeks from Tyabb, cauliflower from Werribee South, spring onions from Clyde and asparagus and broccolini from Koo Wee Rup, where 90 per cent of Australia's asparagus crop is grown.It is Melbourne's two most productive horticulture areas - Werribee on the city's western fringe and the Cranbourne area to the south-east - that are now facing mounting pressure from development. Planning Minister Matthew Guy is set to announce his first changes to the boundary in coming months. As The Saturday Age reveals today, the minister is almost certain to ignore Casey Council's request to reverse a Brumby government decision and take Clyde's vegetable growing out of urban Melbourne. Casey accounts for one-quarter of Melbourne's vegetables and the bulk of its spinach, celery, leeks, spring onions and herbs, including parsley and basil.And in the west, the government is likely to redraw the boundary so that it borders the major horticultural hub at Werribee South, the long-standing source of Melbourne's lettuces, broccoli and cauliflower.The challenge of residential development is not limited to sprawling Melbourne. An RMIT University study last year of the 150-kilometre ring beyond Melbourne's perimeter - the "peri-urban" area - estimates that on current trends, subdivision of farmland is likely to lead to a doubling of dwellings and the decimation of one of Australia's most food-productive regions.The study's co-author, planning specialist Michael Buxton, thinks things have gone too far, and is calling for long-term protection of highly productive farmland. Food is not explicitly recognised in the state's planning regulations. "We've already built over the best soils in this state - the soils around Melbourne. Why would you keep building over it and subdividing it when in the next 50 years we're facing an era of incredible uncertainty and major changes to climate, to fuel supplies and to energy markets?"For politicians federal and state, food has become politically problematic. It has been elevated as a policy priority by the international food crises of 2008. The United Nations estimates the world will have to produce 50 to 100 per cent more food to feed a population that will grow from 7 billion now to 9.3 billion in 2050. The challenge is made greater by estimates that the global area devoted to food is diminishing due to land degradation, climate change and urban expansion.It would, therefore, be reasonable to assume that support for farmers and local food production is obvious for politicians, but it is not when the farmers themselves have different ideas.The Schreurs intend to stay in the food business. But for many other farming families, non-agricultural uses such as residential development offer the superannuation they have long been concerned about not having. This is especially so when the average Australian farmer is 60 years old, their kids do not want a life on the land, and "the pension" is an increasingly quaint notion.The farmers' right to do what they want with their property is a potent force in rural and regional Australia. It is consistent with the opening of Australian markets to international competition and the removal of tariffs. It has added weight from the entrenched views within key government agencies, including Victoria's Department of Primary Industries, that land use, like all produce, should be determined by the global marketplace. All should go to "highest and best use".INCREASING concern about "food security" has led planning experts internationally to ponder their historic lack of focus on this most basic of basics. Unlike issues of shelter, clean water and clean air, food has rarely concerned them. The obvious exceptions are the countries in Europe - France and Germany are notable - that jealously guard their agricultural land and traditions."We really need to be thinking about planning for food as we do about bushfires and floods," says consultant Sinclair. "When it comes to food-growing land we just say 'that's OK, it can go elsewhere'. The problem is you can't replace the really good soil at Cranbourne, or its location."Australia's vast open spaces, big agricultural output and well-stocked shops probably help to explain our own insouciance. It is a common boast that this country produces enough food for 60 million and, overall, is a net exporter by a factor of almost three to one.We are being cautioned, however, against complacency. The Prime Minister's own Science Engineering and Innovation Council has warned that Australia's food capacity faces a challenges with a population forecast to rise to 40 million as fertile land is undermined by factors such as land degradation such as salination, and urbanisation.Australia is one of the driest continents on earth. Its soils are ancient and depleted, and just 6 per cent of its total area, 45 million hectares, is arable land. Most intensive agriculture occurs on the fertile soil on a relatively thin strip of land along the coastal fringe. It is an area heavily and increasingly contested.Australia is also among the most urbanised countries on earth, with the vast bulk of its population huddled on this coastal strip, their homes competing for space with farms, roads, factories, offices, shops, car parks, golf courses, native forests, plantation forests, native grasslands and national parks. Victoria is the most densely populated state, with more than 1500 new residents arriving weekly.Under the same coastal band are vast seams of brown coal that have provided the fuel to power Victoria for decades and are now being eyed for additional uses, including gas.Pressure on the valleys and plains south of the Great Dividing Range looks set to intensify under CSIRO climate change scenarios pointing to inland areas drying and rain retreating to the coast. Under recent drought conditions an estimated one in five northern dairy farmers left the land, defeated by lack of rain and the high cost of irrigation water.Dwindling international oil supplies are likely to make long-distance road transport an increasingly heavy burden for farm businesses in far flung places.Planning experts, local councils, scientists and at least some politicians and farmers are convinced, therefore, of the common sense of maximising the use of those fertile soils near the coast, and city markets, for food.WHILE sprawl is bad for the farmland it buries, it is not always so for the businesses concerned. Faced with the choice of farming or selling up to developers, many fruit and vegetable growers have chosen both - by selling and relocating further afield. Therese Schreurs, for instance, has childhood memories of orchards in Burwood.Rowan Little is the general manager of Montague Fresh, a major apple producer in Victoria. Its headquarters are at Narre Warren North in Melbourne's south-eastern growth corridor along the Princes Highway. He points out that many of Melbourne's early apple orchards were in Doncaster. As the suburbs spread eastwards in the 1950s and '60s, growers sold and moved to the Yarra Valley, Pakenham or Berwick . "Those same orchardists are selling up and moving further out. Urban sprawl has been a means of injecting capital back into fruit growing . . . If it happens, then you are lucky."Senior figures within the Department of Primary Industries agree and are well-known in industry circles for their belief that soils and location are no longer important questions. Agriculture, including vegetable and fruit growing, has evolved. The crucial elements for success are space and water. The capital that comes with cashing in on development helps find both.Their pin-up is Rocky Lamattina, whose family bought their first Australian farm, a mere three-hectare lot at Clayton, in the early 1960s. The family relocated to a 16-hectare property at Five Ways near Cranbourne. And in the early 1990s Lamattina abandoned small, mixed or "salad bowl" horticulture and relocated to Robinvale by the Murray River. He now has almost 2500 hectares of carrots across properties at Robinvale and in western Victoria and South Australia from which he takes 600 kilograms every week, his trucks travelling to markets in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.By operating on such a large scale he has kept himself competitive against imports, and provided a model for the government as it encourages new thinking about food production.For others concerned for the future of agriculture in the peri-urban area around Melbourne, the Lamattina story is a cautionary tale. They warn of the dangers of farmers being driven ever further from markets only to become more reliant on expensive, unreliable irrigation and long-haul transport. "This is the 19th century unbounded-continent thinking, which is unfortunately still endemic in some of our government departments," says Michael Buxton.Buxton says there is an urgent need for specific long-term protection of more prime farmland close to transport and markets, especially the highly productive areas around cities. It is an idea gathering friends and enemies in farming, in politics, and among influential bureaucrats.In late 2010, the Prime Minister's Science Engineering and Innovation Council called for the Commonwealth to work with the states on a national planning strategy for agriculture, including the preservation of food-growing land in peri-urban areas.While it is unclear why, the call for specific protection of farmland failed to get endorsement where it needed to - in the federal government's National Food Plan now being developed. A preliminary report as part of the food plan process concluded that land use issues were a state responsibility. (However, those backing the push for federal leadership on such issues point to the fact that the minority Labor government is dependent on the goodwill of two regional independents.)At state level, the Baillieu government holds power by one seat key marginal electorates are regional. Both Labor and conservative parties have good reason to pay close attention to rural rumblings.While food is not overtly recognised in Victoria's planning regulations, the statewide planning policy does call for protection of farmland of "strategic significance". It neither defines what such land is, nor explains how it should be protected. In this regard, Victoria has fallen behind other states. Tasmania, for instance, has legislated to recognise the "right to farm".For the Brumby government, food and farmland became a point of internal tension in the run-up to the 2010 election. In a 2009 report commissioned for Labor, agricultural consultant and Liberal Party member Mick Murphy slammed ad hoc decision-making in rural planning that "favoured individual outcomes over community benefits". He called for important food-production areas to be mapped and "set aside" for protection, for hard boundaries around rural towns, and for specific recognition of the right to farm.His report was shelved for a year, appearing on an obscure website without announcement just days before the 2010 election. It won the general support of then planning minister Justin Madden, but met stiff opposition from his cabinet colleague, agriculture minister Joe Helper, and his Department of Primary Industries.Helper confirms that he and his department stridently opposed schemes that tried to "tell farmers what's good for them". "You've got this sort of push for preserving parcels of land because somebody somewhere in a planning department decides that it's key agricultural land. Why the hell would you want to tell a farmer that they're on a strategic bit of agricultural land? Therefore they will always be ploughing the field."There was also tension within government over Casey Council's proposal to protect the Clyde horticultural precinct, including the Schreurs' properties, from urban encroachment and to declare it a "food bowl". Labor was then reviewing - for the third time - the urban growth boundary drawn by the Bracks government in its bid to contain Melbourne's expansion. The council feared Casey was becoming little more than a vast dormitory suburb denuded of local jobs. Agriculture, says senior council planner Liam Hodgetts, was "our last real industry".He says that among the forces working against the idea was the "prevailing economic rationalism" within the Department of Primary Industries.The scheme was rejected by the Brumby government, which insisted it needed the Clyde land to house Melbourne's burgeoning population which, at the time, was growing at a historic high of 2000 a week.The tensions over such issues evident in Labor's time now appear to be emerging within the Baillieu Coalition government.Until now the government appeared united in its handling of challenges to agriculture from mining and coal seam gas. It has insisted that existing planning and environmental requirements are adequate to deal with the many schemes now being explored. But this week a parliamentary committee, including both Coalition and Labor members, unanimously recommended stricter rules for coal seam gas drilling, a clear sign of growing nervousness across party lines about the potential political fallout from any new mining or gas extraction projects that proceed.And the multi-party environment and planning committee also recommended the government include in its planning strategy for Melbourne, "measures to identify and protect valuable agricultural land in peri-urban Melbourne".To date, Ted Baillieu and Matthew Guy have been forthright in their intention to release as much land on the fringe as they see fit to maximise Melbourne's housing affordability. The government has committed to a review of the urban growth boundary every two years.In Werribee South, located in an area designated as "green wedge" by the Bracks government, suburban housing development is not permitted. Like the market gardens of Clyde, Werribee South is coming under real pressure as it is surrounded by development. Speculators are hovering, their interest in Werribee's beach-front vegetable-growing fields piqued by the Bracks/Brumby government's approval of a marina development abutting the farms, known as Wyndham Harbour.This week local real estate agent Jon Bird of Fruit Property offered The Saturday Age a $1000 bet that Werribee South will become part of urban Melbourne and face development within a decade.Older growers on smaller lots, struggling to survive in an increasingly corporate environment, want out, their restlessness made worse by the problems with an ancient and inefficient irrigation network and the overly saline recycled water from the Werribee treatment plant.Werribee locals are calling on the government to either put a stop to creeping suburbia and to improve the irrigation network, or to accept subdivision is inevitable so that farmers can sell up and move elsewhere or out of the industry altogether.However, as also reported today, former tomato grower now Food Security Minister Peter Walsh has given strong in-principle support for the idea of a large horticultural area encompassing parts of south-eastern municipalities Mornington, Cardinia and Casey (but not the contested Clyde area), dubbed the the Bunyip Food Belt. His backing of such a proposal is at odds with the prevailing philosophy within his department, and sits uncomfortably with the general thrust of the Coalition's planning policy. "I think it's a good concept," says Walsh. "It ticks quite a few boxes: its multiple use of water, its good use of that soil, it's relatively close to Melbourne, it's relatively close to labour sources. There's some opportunities there for the growers who want to be involved."If it happens, the Bunyip Food Belt is likely to encompass another important growing area known as the Koo Wee Rup swamp. An hour's drive from the CBD, the overflow of urbanisation on the area is inescapable. So much so that Joe Vizzarri, Australia's biggest asparagus grower, is also thinking about relocation.The deep top soil of "the swamp" is now the source of more than 90 per cent of Australia's asparagus. It is already tagged as a special-use zone for horticulture.But over time the local Cardinia shire has allowed excision of small blocks from farms, opening the way for rural residential "lifestyle" use. Complaints by his new neighbours have forced Vizzarri to stop spraying his crop. Noise is a point of contention as well. Vizzarri is considering selling the properties most affected. He has already bought more land further east at Catani as part of the ongoing leapfrog game between the city and the vegetable growers that help feed it.In his many journeys to and from Melbourne, Vizzarri often ponders what has been lost under the housing and industrial estates he passes. "Australia is a big country," he observes, "but all its people are concentrated on the eastern seaboard and that's also where our best land is. I'd prefer that food going to Melbourne is produced on the outskirts it was once upon a time."Royce Millar and Melissa Fyfe are with The Age investigative unit.
Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?
Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.Sign up for free