Farming on the fringe
What will we reap when agriculture moves away from town?
IF you drive through Clyde, on the south-eastern outskirts of Melbourne, you’ll see the old farms where a new, very different, crop is being sown.
Next to the market gardens and green paddocks still lined with windbreaks are expanses of soil dotted with earthmovers and giant concrete pipes. On these properties, houses will become the next harvest of the land.
Melbourne’s urban growth boundary was extended last year and is under review yet again. In May, the state government appointed an advisory committee to recommend “logical inclusions” to the boundary in seven municipalities on the city’s fringe.
In Clyde, the City of Casey opposes any further extension (pdf), and argues instead for “logical exclusions” from last year’s ruling. In its submission to the committee, it stated that the boundary has already exceeded a sustainable limit.
Kathryn Seirlis, the council’s manager of strategic development, says the current and former governments haven’t given enough weight to the role of agriculture in the region, especially in creating employment and improving health and wellbeing.
“We think it’s critically important to protect viable, high value agricultural land for the future communities of Casey and beyond,” she says.
The controversy over Clyde fits within a larger debate about farming on the city’s fringes. The issue was the subject of a recent forum on “peri-urban agriculture”, coordinated by placemaking consultancy Village Well.
Trevor Budge, associate professor of planning at Latrobe University, argues good soil should be managed like any other resource. “If you found a supply of building sand or gravel, you wouldn’t just build over the top of it, you’d treat it as a finite resource,” he says.
“From everything we know – whether it’s climate change, peak oil, energy costs or transport costs – having productive agricultural land close to the city makes us more resilient for the future.”
Mr Budge says constant shifts and reviews have turned the urban growth boundary into a “zone of impermanence”. Many farmers and landowners outside expect to be re-zoned inside, and don’t keep investing in their land.
It’s a problem acknowledged by the Growth Areas Authority, the statutory body charged with coordinating the development of new suburbs.
“One of the problems in the past has been short term, knee-jerk reactions, with huge numbers of people all expecting make a lot of money by being [re-zoned] in the next new residential area,” says Peter Seamer, CEO of the authority.
He says the latest round of reviews is different, and will set aside enough residential land for decades to come. “The processes we’re going through will be sorted out by government in the next few months and they’ll set a very clear direction for the next 25 years,” he says.
Mr Seamer says that although “no one likes to see a reduction in farming land”, urban growth comprises a very small proportion of Victoria’s total farmland.
“The growth has got to go somewhere,” he says. “There was a crisis in the middle of last year, when prices for land went up very steeply because there was a shortage of supply, particularly in the Casey area.”
The state government has not yet released the findings of the logical inclusions process.
But the Casey council has foreshadowed using its planning tools to support farming within the growth boundary, even if its submission is rejected. Together with the Cardinia and Mornington Peninsula councils, Casey has been working on a plan to establish the Bunyip Food Belt, a zone of intensive agriculture that would draw on recycled water from the Eastern Treatment Plant.
Mr Budge accepts that Australia isn’t running short on agricultural land, but says proximity to the population makes all the difference.
“Growing food is part and parcel of the way cities operate. The better metropolitan strategies around the world make agriculture one of the core social and economic components of their plans – not something that sits off the edge and can be pushed further out,” he says.
As well as the added security afforded by a short food-supply chain, he says peri-urban farming also improves wellbeing. “Having contact with nature and an understanding of where food comes from is good for us socially and psychologically. It maintains the contact with the real world that we’ve had for 10,000 years of human history.”
Trading herbs for suburbs
IT’S the end of a normal day on the farm at Australian Fresh Leaf Herbs, in Clyde, just beyond Cranbourne.
While the packing workers tidy the cool room before heading home, banker-turned-farmer William Pham gestures at the rows of hydroponic basil in front of him. “We recycle our water, so we need one-sixteenth of the water for conventionally grown basil,” he explains.
Together with his business partner Jan Vydra and their 60 casual and full-time staff, Mr Pham produces and packages 70,000 bunches of herbs each week.
They began operations here in 2008, but their farm was included in the revised urban growth boundary in 2010. They’re looking for land elsewhere. “When we bought here, this road was empty,” Mr Pham says. “Now you can’t recognise it. The development has happened much faster than I expected.”
Mr Vydra, who was recently named the 2011 Young Australian Farmer of the Year, says he wants to stay within 40 minutes of the city. That kind of proximity is better for business: it’s easier to find workers, supplies are cheaper and more accessible, and the cost of transporting the produce is lower.
But once the boundary expands, property values rise and rates increase. “That’s what happens – you have to sell up. It’s beautiful soil around the whole area at Clyde. People have been farming it for 100 years and they have to move,” he says.
“There’s an economic benefit – we get much more money for our property – but as a community, we lose some really fertile soil and they’re going to put slabs on top of it.”
Although he can see the dilemma for planners, who want to provide affordable housing, he’s worried about food security as older farmers retire. “We need to figure out what’s being produced here and how we’re going to shift it elsewhere to make sure we keep producing food for our people.”
Mr Pham is ambivalent about the change: he says small-time farmers will disappear, but doesn’t think there’ll be any impact on shoppers. “A lot of the smaller growers will sell up, make their money and have an easier lifestyle.
“We spent a lot of money on this place, so what the heck – we may as well do it again. We’re too young to retire. We just have to move further out.”
Read this article at The Age online and watch Trevor Budge's talk on the importance of peri-urban agriculture in Australia, at the On The Edge Forum.