Knowing what is a farm is not that easy

Recent proposals for changes to definitions and categories of farming in the Victorian planning system are causing some consternation, including our region.

At their heart, they are proposals which attempt to address two dilemmas for planners, farmers and communities; land use conflict in rural areas, and the changing nature of farming systems.

The planning conflicts arising between farmer and their non-farmer neighbours in rural areas are longstanding in Victoria, some dating back to the 1960s and 1970s when rural residential developments and ‘hobby’ farms first became a noticeable feature of the housing market.

The encroachment of suburbia into farming areas has a longer history. In both cases noise, odour, traffic movements and other agricultural activities have resulted in local conflict and in planning responses.

At the same time farming systems are not static. Changing technologies, costs and consumer preferences have resulted in different ways to farm, particularly livestock.

The increasing size of broiler farms in our region is one such example, but we are also seeing changes to how traditional grazing operates, with increased stock movement and supplementary feeding.

This second issue is a particular concern for planners when the categories of ‘intensive’ farming and extensive grazing are not clear-cut, and the potential for impacts in the neighbourhood are so varied.

Consequently, the new proposals announced by the State Government attempt to recognise the increasingly complex system of small and large-scale farming, of farms with a variety of inputs and supplementary feeding strategies, and many new types of non-traditional animals farmed.

Generally, the new planning rules, as proposed offer greater clarity for planners, farmers and communities about the real nature of contemporary farming, especially in regions (like ours) where neighbourhood conflict is apparent in many instances.  However, the changes also bring risks and challenges.

For example, the proposal will bring together large broiler farms and small free-range egg farms when it comes to planning approaches, for the first time making for a consistent process for planning all forms of poultry farms.  This is likely to offer more certainty to the small operators, especially when disputes arise, but will also add to compliance costs for these farmers.

Communities should benefit through consistent land use management. Effective implementation of any rural planning system needs to strike a balance between the changing needs of farming and the protection of local environments.

Overall however, there remains the critical issue of managing future farmland in the face of lifestyle development.
To a large extent, these land use conflicts arise because of changing use of rural land. The new planning rules, as proposed, are only needed because of years of local decisions that have allowed land use conflict to arise between farmers and non-farming rural residents, or between farms and expanding urbanisation.

Maintaining prospects for future farming, especially around our cities, requires some hard decisions on development, and even though these often occur in small steps, the overall impact of change, over many decades, has real consequences for food production, consumer choice and versatility in farming.