This article has been updated to include a response from the Shire of Campaspe
The Victorian Farmers Federation has described moves by a local council to require farmers to apply for planning permits to produce food and fibre as an ‘act of bureaucratic madness’.
The VFF says the right to farm is being threatened by overzealous planning laws at local Government level, and points to a recent issue between Echuca cattle producer John Watson and the Shire of Campaspe to illustrate.
Mr Watson’s family has been farming on the outskirts of Echuca for 90 years, and has run 1500-2000 weaners on their 310-acre property for the past eight years.
The VFF says the Shire of Campaspe has demanded Mr Watson apply for a Planning Permit to continue operating his farm, arguing that the family is now engaged in “Intensive Animal husbandry”.
The state’s planning laws (Victorian Planning Provisions) define Intensive Animal Husbandry as: “Land used to keep or breed farm animals, including birds, by importing most food from outside the enclosures”.
Victorian Farmers Federation president Peter Tuohey said the Campaspe Shire is treading on dangerous ground by demanding the Watsons obtain a permit, when the real issue was the council’s failure to deal with urban encroachment.
“It looks to me like the Shire is trying to exploit a loophole in the planning laws to curb the Watsons’ Right to Farm and push them out,” Mr Tuohey said.
“The Watsons have a pre-existing right. They were there long before the Shire allowed Echuca households to build within 100 metres of the farm.”
“If Campaspe can exploit this loophole, then what’s it mean for other farmers who import the majority of their livestock’s feed?”
“The Shire of Campaspe’s interpretation of ‘Intensive Animal husbandry’ would capture a huge number of dairy farms and others, who import most of their feed.
“The real danger is that we end up seeing this planning law used to stifle the growth of Victorian agriculture.”
Mr Watson said the shire shouldn’t be allowed to get away with demanding he get a planning permit.
“If they’re (the Shire) allowed to get away with this we’ll see anyone who imports most of their stock’s tucker forced to apply for a planning permit.”
“It’s only because we’re on the outskirts of town that they’re trying to do this.”
The VFF said it is examining the Victorian Planning Provision definition of Intensive Animal Husbandry and will be seeking clarification from the Victorian Government on whether the definition needs to be tightened or amended.
“The irony is the Shire of Campaspe’s own Municipal Strategic Statement says: ‘Agricultural production, based on intensive irrigated areas and large tracts of dry land farming, combine to form the largest industry in the Shire’,” Mr Tuohey said.
“Yet here’s the Shire’s officers trying to stifle agriculture’s growth.
“The VFF is calling on the Shire of Campaspe to see reason and find a solution that recognises the Watsons’ and all farmers’ rights.”
Campaspe Shire response
In response, Campaspe Shire people and place general manager Paul McKenzie said Mr Watson had lodged a planning application for intensive animal husbandry with the Shire of Campaspe, after seeking independent legal and planning advice.
“The application received recognises the farming practice on the land has changed over the past few years, moving from an extensive farming operation, to an intensive operation. The application is for 2,200 head of cattle for the next 10 years on 124 hectares,” Mr McKenzie said.
“Once council became aware of the change in use, council began working with Mr Watson to identify steps needed to be taken to comply with requirements under the planning scheme. Council also received a number of complaints from the rural sector relating to odour and amenity.
“Intensive animal husbandry can have off-site environmental impacts and as a consequence the use is discretionary but may proceed under a permit. Other types of farming that are intensive animal husbandry include piggeries, poultry farms and livestock management where most feed is being imported from outside the enclosures. While other permits have been issued, this proposal is quite unique as the stocking rates are much higher than those for dairying or other animal husbandry practices in our region.
“The applicant has increased his stocking rates to a level that importing feed is required all year round, triggering the need for a permit.
“The “intensive animal husbandry” definition is within every planning scheme in Victoria, since the introduction of new format planning schemes. It was included in the Campaspe Planning Scheme in 1998, 16 years ago, when the new format scheme was approved.
“The application is not a dairying proposal. This application will not result in any regulation of the dairy industry.
“Council is simply carrying out its legislative responsibility under the Planning and Environment Act to apply the planning scheme. In this case the farmer has changed the method of farming on his land, to one that requires a permit.
“The application will be assessed on merit based on the information provided to council by the applicant. Planning staff are required to prepare a detailed and balanced report which is based on the planning scheme requirements. This includes the requirements of the state and local planning policies, the Farming Zone provisions and the general decision guidelines. The application is expected to be considered by council in October.
“Council has established a Farming Advisory Committee to help council in matters like this. This committee is made up of experienced farmers and local agriculture experts. Three members will be appointed as a sub-group to review the application material and provide advice for council to consider.
“The planning scheme and council’s local policies recognise the importance of agriculture and the right to farm. Permits for agriculture are only required when it is necessary to manage known environmental impacts for some types of farming practices.”