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Australian Rural Planning
Rural Planning
The Rural Planning Wheel
Preservation of Agricultural Land
Why should we preserve Agricultural Land?
The preservation of agricultural land is of concern in Australia. Contrary to popular belief, Australia does not have a large supply of good agricultural land. In fact, only 10% of Australia's landmass can be considered as land that is good for agriculture (ie, it is arable). Most of this is on the coastal fringe of the continent and this is also where there is a high population growth rate. Thus, the agricultural land is coming into conflict with the expansion of the urban areas and the associated rural residential development.
The protection of high quality agricultural land within the Sydney region exemplifies the issue for Australia. Sydney is the country's largest city with approximately 4 million people and is located on the coast with a good climate for agriculture. The preservation of the agricultural land on the fringe therefore is an important issue for the future planing of the region and its fresh food and produce supply. It is the Shires located on the fringe of Sydney which produce a significant proportion of the fresh produce both consumed and produced in New South Wales (especially perishable commodities). The main agricultural produce grown in Sydney's urban fringe is perishable vegetables, poultry, nurseries, flowers and cultivated turf. There are also considerable dairies, orchards, horse studs and spelling properties and goats, deer, alpacas as well as other traditional forms of agriculture.
Australian Bureau of Statistics Data for the 1993-94 Agricultural Census has been analysed to illustrate this point. Vegetable Production occurs in all regions of NSW. The Murray and Murrumbidgee regions produce the highest percentages of total vegetable production (27% and 32%) respectively. The Sydney region contributes 10% of the total vegetable tonnage produced in NSW. (See vegetable graph) However, when one breaks this vegetable production into perishable commodities, (those commodities that perish quickly when harvested and therefore need to be located close to the market they serve) a different picture arises. It can be seen from the graph (See perishable vegetable graph) that the Sydney region produces 52% of the State's lettuce production 84% of fresh mushrooms, 78% of spinach, 90% of spring onions and shallots, 98% of parsley and 100% of the total tonnage of Chinese cabbages. The Sydney region also accounts for 40% of the State's total area devoted to nurseries, 53% of flower production and 56% of the total area under cultivated turf (See nurseries graph). Poultry production in the Sydney region accounts for 51% of the State total. The graph (See poultry graph) illustrates this graphically, it also shows that the Sydney region is where the various types of poultry products originate (these being chickens, ducks and turkeys for meat as well as egg production). NSW Agriculture estimates the value of agriculture in the Sydney region to be $1 billion and this figure does not include the horse bloodstock industry.
There is a need, therefore to recognise agricultural land as a constraint to urban and rural residential growth and to manage it effectively.
There is an increasing trend towards the fragmentation of productive agricultural land, which is affecting its capability to produce agriculture in a sustainable manner. Once viable farming units are now being made into smaller less viable units and the use changed to residential-type uses with no realisation about the impacts of this on such issues as land degradation, rural land use conflict or the cumulative impact of the loss to production of this good agricultural land. This trend is exemplified on the fringe of the Sydney region where the desire for rural living and a productive agricultural hinterland are coming into conflict. Agricultural production in the Sydney region is an important part of the economy as well as providing a rural hinterland. These issues and problems are evident throughout Rural NSW and Australia. The "Cycle of Farmland Conversion" , which is taken from a recently published book on Farmland Preservation in America (Daniels and Bowers, Holding Our Ground - Preserving America's Farms and Farmland, Island Press). It is significant to note that the cycle is as relevant to the Australian situation as it is in America, signifying that it is an international problem.
There are three basic ways to recognise and preserve agricultural land:
  • land use zoning,
  • monetary compensation, or
  • right to farm legislation.
Land use zoning entails placing restrictions on the use of the land by way of statute. Monetary compensation can take two forms: purchase of development rights or tradeable development rights. Right to Farm legislation, basically, takes away the common law right to sue for nuisance caused by a farmer to a neighbouring rural residential use. Land use zoning is practised in Australia as the principal method for controlling the development of land. It is a system where land is designated for a principal use and uses that are considered not to be suitable or compatible with the principal use are prohibited. There is also the ability to require certain uses to submit an application for use of the land, which is then assessed having regard to a set of published assessment criteria. Click here to see some examples of zones.
Monetary compensation takes two forms:
  • Purchase of Development Rights involves a farmer selling the development rights to the farm to a government or non-government organisation. In return a covenant is taken out over the land to ensure that the land is only used for agricultural purposes. The purchase of development rights can also be used to require soil and water management to be undertaken on the property. The property is inspected at regular intervals to ensure that it is being used properly.
  • Transfer of Development Rights occurs where land is declared to be in a preservation zone and kept for agriculture. The development rights to this land can be purchased by developers who whish to gain an increase in the development potential of land declared to be in a development zone.
Both of these methods exist in the United States. Of the two, the Purchase of Development Rights is the more successful. Both are applicable to the Australian situation with the issues of Transfer of Development Rights already in existence for heritage sites in the city of Sydney. Its application to agricultural land is problematical under the existing EP&A Act. There is no purchase of development rights schemes in existence in Australia.
Right to farm legislation basically allows farmers to have a right to continue farming as long as they are carrying out "good management practices" even if there is a loss of amenity for surrounding rural residential uses. It precludes surrounding rural residential dwellers from suing in the courts for nuisance caused to them by the farm noises, odours or dust. This is a good concept in theory but in practice is difficult to implement effectively as it does not provide a solution to both sides of the problem. The farmer is able to continue operating but the surrounding rural residential users have not solved their amenity issue. Tasmania and Western Australia have varying forms of Right to Farm legislation, their effectiveness as a tool to preserve agricultural land has been questioned as they do not override the environmental legislation.
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