Sustainable Agriculture in the Tweed
A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 26th November 2011
The Tweed Shire Council is preparing a strategy for Sustainable Agriculture. This is part of the multi-faceted Northern Rivers Food Links project, in which the seven councils of the Northern Rivers, together with Rous Water, have been working together for the past three years on more than two dozen food security and sustainability initiatives. These include a source identification project, a Sustainable Food Directory, a sustain food website and ‘virtual marketplace’, the promotion of land-sharing to connect would-be growers with land-owners, a local government resource toolkit showcasing best case policy development across the region, and support for a number of community gardens and farmers’ markets.
The Strategy aims to set out a vision and a pathway in which the whole of the Tweed community can work together to ensure that agriculture remains economically and ecologically viable in the Tweed shire, contributing to the economic vitality and food security of the Tweed and beyond.
As I discovered through listening to the concerns of farmers and growers in the Tweed over a number of days, bringing the community together for this purpose will be no simple matter.
There is amongst many farmers a level of distrust and suspicion of the Council’s motives in preparing the Strategy. Specifically, there is a feeling that the Strategy may be used to further entrench existing restrictions on the subdivision of agricultural land.
For many farmers, in the Tweed as elsewhere, being able to sell part of their land is fundamental to their retirement plans. Restrictions on sub-divisions are seen as almost callous indifference to the huge burdens that farmers have been under for the past several decades.
This is a complex issue, because what typically happens with subdivisions is that they are purchased in five-acre lots by lifestyle ‘tree changers’ who spend a great deal of time mowing, slashing and fighting a largely losing battle against environmental weeds. After a number of summers spent that way, many urban refugees throw their hands up in despair, put their properties on the market, and gratefully return to the city. Sound familiar?
The one remaining agricultural machinery dealer in Murwillumbah confirmed this pattern. Whereas 15 years ago there were five dealers and most of the machinery sales were to commercial farmers, now it’s just him, and 90% of his sales are to lifestylers.
This pattern is resulting in the progressive loss of productive agricultural land, and so you can understand the Council’s reluctance to permit further subdivisions. But you can also understand the deep frustrations and bitterness felt by many farmers. These are the words of mango farmer Mike Yarrow, who has lived and worked in the Tweed since the early 1970s:
The core of our complaint [is] in relation to our deliberately destroyed profitability, which has left us at the end of our working lives – I am 67, whilst many [farmers] here are nearer 80 – with no super, no health insurance, no holiday houses by the sea, no life insurance, no income, no stocks, no shares…the list goes on…all we have left is our land, and many in places of power, or in the community, with no understanding of our deliberately induced poverty, call us ratbags for trying to take the only path out of this mess. I survive on a pension of $250 / week…
Mike has a quite sophisticated theory of what he terms ‘the deliberately induced poverty’ of smaller-scale farmers in Australia, and I’ll discuss that next time.
The Tweed Sustainable Agriculture Strategy Discussion Paper can be downloaded here: http://www.tweed.nsw.gov.au/Agriculture/default.aspx
The Northern Rivers Food Links project can be visited here: http://www.northernriversfoodlinks.com.au/
The Sustain Food website is here: http://www.sustainfood.com.au/