Peter Hunt, a Weekly Times reporter, has treated the concerns of Victoriaâ€™s pastured livestock farmers over proposed planning reforms with total contempt,Â calling them â€˜delusional.â€™
This seems unsurprising given Hunt spent many years in a policy role with the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), a body whose reputation for attacking small-scale farmers is increasing.
Pastured pig and poultry farmers have rejected factory farming and are instead growing animals outside in the fresh air. They devote their farms to growing healthy animals in ethical and ecologically-sound ways.
In anÂ op ed in last weekâ€™s Weekly Times, Mr Hunt trotted out the drivel the Victorian Government is seeking to rectify when he called pastured livestock farms â€˜intensiveâ€™.
Hunt went on to make spurious claims about the biosecurity risks of free-range poultry and pigs. However, it is sheds full of thousands of animals living with their own excrement that are the real source of a massive public health threat â€“ those sheds are â€˜food for fluâ€™ as evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace states.
The Governmentâ€™s attempt to reform the planning provisions has fallen short of the 2016 recommendations of theÂ Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC). The AIAC called for the scheme to recognise the lower risk small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms pose, and for planning controls to be commensurate with that risk.
The AIAC called for small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms to be treated like other grazing production systems.
The AIAC went through an independent public consultation. However, once handed to Agriculture Victoria, the ongoing consultation was limited to peak bodies for intensive agriculture â€“ Australian Pork Limited (APL), Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), and the VFF, and a handful of cattle farmers. There was no representation for pastured pig and poultry farmers, andÂ Ag Vic came back with a draftÂ that sees all pig and poultry farms with more than 200 birds or three sows needing a permit.
The Government, the VFF, and the likes of Hunt keep repeating that all pig and poultry farms have always needed to get a permit, however, they fail to acknowledge that requirement was only recentlyÂ established by a VCAT case in 2015. This was a trigger for the need to reform the planning scheme. Calling a farm with 100 pigs on 40 acres â€˜intensiveâ€™ was deemed inappropriate, and the controls applied incommensurate with the risk.
Huntâ€™s track record of sloppy and inaccurate journalism does the public interest no favours, and his disdain for pastured pig and poultry farmers tells where his allegiances lie.
Jo had just been ordered to remove all her pigs from her farm after losing a case in VCAT trying to prove that her farm wasnâ€™t â€˜intensiveâ€™.
According to the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPP), intensive animal husbandry refers to â€˜importing most food from outside the enclosuresâ€™. â€œIn Happy Valley Piggery v Yarra Ranges SC, VCAT  determined that â€˜most foodâ€™ meant most nutrition. This had the effect of making a free-range piggery fall under the definition of Intensive animal husbandry. This classification was counterintuitive to some people as a â€˜free rangeâ€™ piggery was not seen as â€˜intensiveâ€™.â€ (AIAC 2015)
In late 2015, an independent body (the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC)) was appointed by the Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford and the Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to address concerns that the planning provisions were no longer sufficiently meeting the needs and expectations of farmers nor the community.
I will here quote extensively from both the consultation paper and the final report of the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC).
The VPP Advisory Committee of 1997 that reviewed the implementation of the VPP said: It does not matter where the food is sourced from because it is the concentration of the animals which leads to the need for planning control. The current definition is an input measure â€“ it seeks to define the use based on the source of the feed inputs. What matters in planning are the outcomes, or impacts, of a use. Shifting the definition and control of animal industries to focus on their impacts would seem to make more sense.
Victoriaâ€™s planning approval system for intensive animal husbandry is unique compared to other states in that Codes of Practice have been developed for a number of livestock industries that rely on intensive housing and production systems, to support the planning process. There are codes for the piggery, cattle feedlot and broiler industries. These are incorporated into the VPP and all planning schemes in Victoria.
Development of the codes was triggered by expansion of these industries coupled with a recognition of the need to achieve environmentally and financially viable development. The intent of the codes was to provide a detailed and stringent framework of accepted principles and where possible standards for the establishment and operation of intensive animal industries under Victorian conditions. (AIAC 2015)
In 2016, the AIAC recommended a â€˜graduated approach to planning controls based on riskâ€™, pointing out that â€œsome intensive animal industries are of a scale that people not associated with the industry might find confronting: chicken farms of 1.2 million birds, goat dairies of 14,000 goats.Â Â But many intensive animal industries are of a small scale catering to local or boutique markets â€“ the planning system needs to manage the lower risk these operations pose in a manner commensurate with that risk.â€ (AIAC 2016)
So the AIAC recognized that the relevant permit requirements of the VPP and associated codes of practice were designed to address the risks to environment and amenity posed by large-scale industrial sheds of pigs and poultry and that free-range pig and poultry farms had been inadvertently caught up in the definition over the technicality of importing the majority of the feed. The independent committee also recognized that the risk profile of a small-scale free-range pig farm is very different to a shed full of pigs, and that the planning provisions should account for this difference in risk.
The AIAC recommendation that there be graduated controls that would treat small-scale pig and poultry farmers much like other grazing systems (subject to meeting minimum standards), would have removed the onerous and unnecessary requirement for a permit.
They also recommended to allow these low risk farms to be allowed operate in Green Wedge Zones with a permit, which is significant because the prohibition on intensive animal husbandry in Green Wedge Zones is what ultimately caused the move of Happy Valley Free Range to a different shire in order to continue farming. This was broadly acceptable to most small-scale pastured pig and poultry farmers and the eaters who want access to ethical and ecologically-sound meat.
What is also significant is that the Government is now proposing to allow intensive pig and poultry sheds into Green Wedge, Rural Living, and Rural Conservation Zones with a permit, quite contrary to the recommendations of the AIAC.
The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) put in a submission to the AIAC and attended the public hearings, and felt that the committee captured our membersâ€™ concerns reasonably well, and that we had reason to be hopeful that the Government would take the recommendations and rectify the situation where pastured pig and poultry farmers had become collateral damage of the need to more closely monitor our industrial counterparts.
The Final Report was delivered to the Victorian Government in April 2016, and so we waited. And waited.
In September 2017, the draft of the graduated controls â€“ the tool we expected would rectify pastured pig and poultry farmersâ€™ inadvertent treatment as though we were industrial intensive livestock producers â€“ were released for public consultation, and we were beyond disappointed.
While the independent committee (the AIAC) had demonstrably understood how unnecessary it is to apply the same controls to low-risk pastured systems as to large-scale intensive sheds, once the report disappeared behind government doors, it appeared that the Big Ag lobby (in particular Australia Pork Limited (APL), but also the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)) have virtually written the draft provisions. I cannot shake the phrase â€˜where malice is enabled by incompetenceâ€™ from my head.
Make no mistake â€“ APL, VFF, and MLA are no friend to small-scale producers. APL have been sending their representative to VCAT hearings to testify against small-scale pastured pig farmers such as Jo Stritch. President of the VFF Livestock Group, export beef and grain farmer and feedlot owner Leonard Vallance (who is also the former chair of the Board of Victorian meat regulator PrimeSafe) is on the record saying that â€œFarmersâ€™ markets are the achilles heel of the Victorian food industry,â€ he said. â€œThe reputational risk to our export markets is massiveâ€¦â€. Head of the VFF Pig Group is 500-sow intensive pig producer John Bourke. And Head of the Egg Group is a caged-egg producer.
The VFF even submitted to the AIAC that the Public Health and Wellbeing Act should be amended to exempt agricultural producers from nuisance complaints.
In a recent newsletter, the VFF asserted that they:
do not support the planning permit exemption for some piggeries and poultry farms for a number of reasons. Often people start small and grow over time. Will the person who started with 150 hens know to get a planning permit when they have 1000 hens?
Planning is about asking the questions on land use, environment and amenity â€“ 200 hens on a quarter acre block has a different impact on five hectares and 33 pigs is a large number of pigs even on this same area. We feel these questions need to be asked of all pig and poultry farms given these arenâ€™t grazing animals and will always need additional feed.
To summarise some of the key issues, the draft provisions would:
Treat a pastured producer with 500 birds the same as an intensive producer with 500,000 birds in sheds.
Treat a pastured pig producer with more than 8 sows on paddocks (around 80 pigs) the same as an intensive producer with 800 sows in sheds (possibly 8,000 pigs in total).
Allow an existing intensive poultry farm to open a new range for up to 150,000 chickens without any of the restrictions placed on a farmer with 500 chickens.
Enforce 100m buffer zones from neighbouring dwellings on pastured poultry farms with up to 450 birds and pastured pig farms with up to 8 sows â€“ rendering small scale farming on land less than 200m wide practically impossible (to give some perspective, at least 1000 birds and 100 pigs is typical for viable small-scale systems).
Allow cattle feedlots with up to 1000 cattle to be established with no permit.
Allow intensive pig and poultry sheds in the Green Wedge, Rural Living, & Rural Conservation Zones with a permit (currently prohibited).
To be clear, where we expected the new provisions to rectify the unintended consequence of recently treating pastured pig and poultry farmers the same as intensive shed producers, the Governmentâ€™s draft instead codifies this interpretation.
No longer does risk to environment or amenity appear to be a key consideration â€“ intensive producers have successfully lobbied the Government and the result is prohibitive and expensive permit application requirements that will be the death knell of the growing movement of small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms in Victoria.
Taking only pigs as an example, here is the striking difference between what the AIAC recommended and what the Government is proposing.
AIAC Recommendation (April 2016)
Category 3 – Midâ€scale Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â No permit if specified standards and requirements are met
Intensive supplementary feeding of cattle, sheep or goats (not a feedlot) where provided for in a code. Small sheep feedlot where provided for in a code. Small free range pig and poultry farms where provided for in a code.
No pigs located in these setbacks: 100m from other dwellings
Iâ€™ll save it for our longer public submission to explain the entirely arbitrary nature of the numbers proposed by the Government that is rendered even more meaningless by failing to attach any land size specification to the number of stock.
So why shouldnâ€™t small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms be required to seek a permit to farm in the Farming Zone?
Because we are farming, and the Farming Zoneâ€™s purpose is to enable farming, and because other pastured livestock systems do not require a permit to farm. Even the potato farmers whose paddocks are routinely kept barren and many of whom spray glyphosate and fungicides right up to their boundaries do not require a permit, so why should we?
And what is the big deal if the Government insists that we must obtain permits despite the lack of evidence-based arguments for why we should?
Because it is an expensive and complicated process. In our shire, for example, a permit costs about $1300. Most people do not feel confident writing their own applications with all the attendant documentation and need to access multiple government agencies for information, and so hiring consultants is the norm, at many more thousands of dollars. If subject to a notice and review period, one must post notices and alert neighbours to the application, and then sit through local council meetings and be interrogated about the plan, often questioned about aspects totally irrelevant to a highly mobile, pastured livestock system (â€˜please explain the siting of the shedsâ€™ â€“ â€˜there are no shedsâ€™).
The history of the Victorian Planning Provisions reads like Dracula meets Yes Minister. If we take away the intentions â€“ good and bad â€“ and seek to enable farming while judging farming systems on their merits, itâ€™s really not that difficult. Here are some useful principles:
The Farming Zone is to enable farming.
Pasture-based livestock systems are (potentially) healthiest for soils, animals, water, air, and workers.
A permit should be required for technologies and systems known to present higher risks to environment and amenity.
There must be recourse for complaints and enforcement when farmers (of any size or production model) are failing to farm responsibly.
So what do we want?
AFSA has started a petition that needs as many voices as possible. The Government needs to know that the people want access to ethically and ecologically-sound produce, and that you stand as and with small-scale producers working to grow a better, fairer food system for everyone.
We call on Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford and Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to explain why low-risk small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms are to be subjected to greater scrutiny and compliance costs than cattle feedlots.
We demand that small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms be treated under the Farming Zone like other low-risk grazing systems that rely on supplemental feed such as the majority of Victorian beef and dairy cattle.
Join AFSA and add your voice to the food sovereignty movement that is working to secure access to nutritious and culturally-appropriate food grown in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems.
Animal Industries Advisory Committee Discussion Paper (Dec 2015): https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/10080/Animal-Industries-Discussion-Paper-Revision-1.PDF
Animal Industries Advisory Committee Final Report (April 2016): http://agriculture.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/323424/PPV-Animal-Industries-Final-Report-.pdf
Planning for Sustainable Animal Industries (Sept 2017): https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/policy-and-strategy/planning-reform/sustainable-animal-industries