In recent decades, thousands of farms have become economically marginal and have gone out of business. What is not widely known is that this “marginality” has often been the result not of market forces but of government regulation. In particular, governments in pursuit of urban green votes have imposed a vast range of devastating new costs on farmers.
My farm is probably one of the worst affected in Australia, so I can speak about this with some knowledge. “Saarahnlee” is at Shannons Flat in NSW. Our northern boundary fence is the southern boundary of the ACT and its Namadgi National Park.
The farm consists of about 14,000 acres, about 60 per cent of which was cleared before World War II. When I bought it in the 1980s, I had been working overseas to earn the money to buy the place. Unfortunately, I was unable to farm it for some time so extensive regrowth occurred. When I returned to Australia to begin to farm, I found that various laws to preserve native vegetation had been enacted in the meantime, and I was unable to “reclear” the land.
I could have applied for permission to clear, but not only was it unlikely this would have been granted, at that time it would have cost us over $300,000 merely to prepare the necessary farm plan. This was because of the number of different ecosystems present due to the 900 metre altitude variation on the property. There would have been no refund if the plan was rejected. It should be pointed out that under the just-released regulations (December 1, 2005) this cost would now be paid by the relevant department.
The result was that I was left with only 800 acres to farm: not nearly enough to live off and a financial catastrophe. The bank foreclosed on our mortgage and at the moment we are barely hanging on, thanks to the help of our extended families.
I protested to the state government and was told nothing could be done. Our plight has received extensive publicity and it’s worth putting on the record that I haven’t received one message of sympathy from any environmentalist. It appears the Green movement is prepared to destroy the property rights of despised groups such as farmers and devastate their lives in order to achieve its ends.
This is particularly puzzling in our case because the property was always bio-diverse, with full-flowing riparian zones and almost exclusively native grasses on the majority of the landmass. Forty per cent was native forest (and we intended to keep it that way) - predominantly Alpine Ash, Mountain Gum, White Sally and Broad Leaf Peppermint.
We have had to considerably scale down our sheep-breeding program in which, with the help of the University of New England, we were successfully breeding sheep with wool as fine as that currently produced in cruel conditions from “shedded sheep” (i.e. those kept in sheds and starved).
Prior to our select breeding wool project that produced large stud numbers, we built two big dams and a cottage to start a business providing trout fly-fishing. The fish and the facilities were excellent: Rex Hunt made three documentaries at our fishing lodge on Rock Hut Creek.
But then NSW government policy regarding dams and water storage changed (this was in the 1990’s, prior to the recent changes) and suddenly, our fishing business became illegal. We had to shut it down, with the loss of the considerable capital investment we had made with borrowed funds.
With regard to water, over the past 20 years we’ve seen our creeks that flow out of the area protected by native vegetation laws dry up. This is due to a phenomenon known as “interception”. Basically, if you turn grassland into a forest, the growing trees take about half the rainwater that previously went into waterways. This is something the Greens and the Kosciusko National Park people (who forced my ancestors off their high country grazing leases) don’t like to talk about.
Our other serious problem is being adjacent to the badly managed, and inappropriately fenced, Namadgi National Park. One problem is pest animals: I have lost hundreds of sheep to wild dogs from the Park and much of my remaining pasture was eaten by literally thousands of kangaroos during the recent drought.
But perhaps the worst danger from the Park is fire. There has been no burning off in the part adjacent to us (a border of about 11 kilometres) for as long as I can remember. If I stand at the fence, I can see dead timber on the ground to a height of a metre or more stretching as far as the eye can see. This is a holocaust waiting to occur and when it does it will roar through the 90 per cent of my farm that is now forest right up to our house.
Thanks to the native vegetation laws, the cleared farmland that used to provide a barrier between the Park and us is gone. As we saw in the horrific fires of January 2003 in our region, we now have the strange situation where it is illegal for a farmer to cut one branch off a tree and yet national park managers receive no reprimand when two-thirds of their area is destroyed by fire - and that fire runs out of the parks onto private land and into our capital city.
It is a genuine puzzle to me why the general population cannot see how this situation is not only grossly unfair to farmers, but is also completely dysfunctional in terms of the environmental goals it was set up to achieve.
Peter Spencer owns and operates a farm in the high country of southern New South Wales. The farm's main objective is to produce ultra fine wool from breeding Saxon sheep in natural conditions rather than, as now happens in many places, from sheep kept in sheds.
Peter also writes a blog about the destruction of farming from government regulation. You can read it here: peterspencer.id.au.