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Not far from my house is the last of what once was many market gardens in a suburban sand belt. Nearby is a small airstrip. When it was built just after WWII about 250 ha of farmland had to be cleared for runways, aprons and hangars. Flat, free draining and under an hour’s drive to the city markets the land supported scores of families working on a patchwork of small dairy farms, poultry yards, orchards and vegetable gardens.
A government report at the time stated that by building over the arable land, “91,500 dozen eggs, 5,150 poultry for the table, 88,800 gallons of milk… and 3,941 tons of vegetables” would be permanently removed from the city’s food markets. The report stated that “all the compensation (to farmers) possible – in cash – would not be able to start the market gardeners in a new area… (because) with the help of irrigation, growers can produce from three to four crops a year from the same soil. This is not possible in any other part of the state – and possibly not anywhere else in Australia.”
More than six decades later, this problem of building over farmland is now rampant and is seriously threatening our ability to feed ourselves with the problem most obvious in our largest city. As Sydney pushes west the area of arable land in the Hawkesbury catchment between the burbs and the Blue Mountains is rapidly disappearing under housing. In the past ten years 50 per cent of fruit producers have left the industry, piggeries dropped by 66 per cent, dairy herds moved into more intensive feedlot – like farms, and vegetable production dropped by 30 per cent. Over this period the population of Sydney increased by 1.7 per cent annually. Last year alone Sydney gained another 75,000 mouths to feed.
With the ageing of our population there is a push to increase population to maintain growth to pay for aged care. The most popular place to build houses is on our urban fringe – where our farmland is. By pushing our farms further away into less arable land it increases their costs in fertiliser and transport.
There is no vision of patchwork development in this nation. This is where housing and agriculture exist side by side with housing built on less arable land, such as along ridges and poorer soil belts while agriculture has the pick of the valley floors and water course flats. Fly into Barcelona, for example, and for the last minutes of the descent one is jetting in over a sea of market gardens and small villages. When an area is developed in Australia it is like a housing bomb has been detonated with the green destroyed and black tiles and red bricks left in its place.
Luckily there is much strict planning over much of the very best agricultural land on the urban fringe but it only takes a change of political will for some of the best fruit tree land, market gardening sand belts or lush dairy country to be turned into a new housing estate. It is something we need to be aware of and vocal about.
I drove past the airstrip the other day and the last of the market gardeners were planting out straight rows of little cauliflowers or cabbages as their family had done since the start of last century. It was then I noticed the developers sign: “COMING SOON! FOUR BRAND NEW WAREHOUSES!”.