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Urban farming may be on way to extinction

First published: September 2003.

IF YOU EAT FRESH FOOD in Sydney, offer your thanks to the 1300 market gardeners who farm the Sydney Basin and supply the city with its fresh produce. And if you live elsewhere in NSW you might thank those farmers as well – a full 90 percent of the state’s perishable produce originates in the agriculturally-favoured Sydney Basin.

Whether you will be able to continue to eat the region’s produce, however, is an open question. Rising land values, urban expansion, a lack of interest among the children of farmers and the need of farmers to finance their retirement are combining to reduce the amount of food produced in the region.

One of three remnant urban market gardens in Rockdale local government area. Another exists at La Perouse, in the Randwick local government area. The Rockdale farms, managed by Asian farmers, are all that remains of what was once a major food bowl of the Sydney region.
One of three remnant urban market gardens in Rockdale local government area. Another exists at La Perouse, in the Randwick local government area. The Rockdale farms, managed by Asian farmers, are all that remains of what was once a major food bowl of the Sydney region.

According to NSW Agriculture, the region’s urban fringe agriculture, including market gardening, orcharding, poultry, cut flowers and glasshouse and hydroponic cultivation, is worth around $1 billion with flow-on benefits to the state economy of between $2-$3 billion.

Market gardeners in the Sydney Basin farm two geographically distinct pockets:

  • the Hills to Liverpool area on the south-west urban fringe
  • the outer Blacktown to Hawkesbury region to the north.

Both of these areas are experiencing rapid residential and commercial development as Sydney’s population expands by up to 1000 a week. The farmland between Parramatta and the Nepean River/Blue Mountains escarpment was long ago consumed by residential development.

Decimation by attrition

Fronting the Pacific on its eastern edge and restricted by the line of the Blue Mountains to the west, the geography of the Sydney Basin has forced agriculture in the Sydney region to the south-west and north-west. To the north, the sandstone uplift of the Hornsby Plateau limited further expansion. It was similar in the south where sandstone uplands – today’s Royal and Heathcote national parks and Sydney Water’s bushland catchment area feeding the southern dams and the city’s water supply – have limited development.

The origin of farming in the Sydney region goes back to the passengers of the First Fleet. Frustrated with attempts to crop the sandy soils around the harbour at places such as Farm Cove, site of the present-day Royal Botanic Gardens, and Garden Island, the colony’s early agriculture moved to the clay soils of the Parramatta region as soon as it was opened by exploration. Farms were established at Rouse Hill and elsewhere in areas that would within 200 years be engulfed by the flood tide of urban expansion.

Urban market garden, Rockdale
Urban market garden, Rockdale

Agriculture spilled into the Sydney Basin and what are today suburbs as far apart as Ryde and Kogarah once supported orchards and market gardens. As the metropolitan area grew it pushed the urban fringe farmers before it. The 1960s and 1970s brought rising land values that ended the urban agriculture of the Mona Vale-Warriewood pocket inland of the northern beaches.

The same process, and the need to open new land for subdivision for a growing population, had earlier forced urban agriculture from older suburbs. To the south of the city, the Kogarah-Rockdale area beyond the Cooks River was, in the late Nineteenth Century, the source of much of Sydney’s fruit, vegetables and poultry. By the middle of the Twentieth Century urban expansion had covered the farmlands in houses, factories and roads. Few urban farms remained.

The same thing happened as the city expanded westward onto the clay soil plains to the south-west. As late as the 1970s a vineyard could be seen beside the Great Western Highway on the metropolitan outskirts and there were fruit orchards a little further along the Highway. Now, it is endless housing to the Blue Mountains foothills.

Farming decline fed by urbanisation

The speculative housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s consumed much agricultural land, but it was not as if the market gardeners were the unwilling victims of urban growth. Some sold their landholdings to finance their retirement, a practice that further spurred urban development.

As housing development encroached farmland, the new residents discovered that farming was a practice not without odour and noise. Complaints to councils brought further pressure on the family-owned market gardens of the urban-rural fringe.

The… frequently poor farmers who work on the city fringes are misusing dangerous pesticides and becoming ill

Today, market gardening by what is a predominately immigrant farming workforce is an economically important industry providing a reliable supply of local, fresh food to the city. Unfortunately, it is not all that financially rewarding. The prospect of limited income, long hours and an education that qualifies them for better-paid city jobs are some of the reasons that the children of market gardeners are not attracted to the life.

Much of this was confirmed when NSW Agriculture set out to develop a policy on sustainable agriculture in the Sydney Basin in 1997. In their preliminary study, the department said there existed a significant potential to utilise urban wastes of organic origin as an agricultural input. Sewage sludge, wastewater and animal by-products were mentioned and the potential to recycle the sity’s wastes became clear.

Investigation finds farming a health hazard

The study also disclosed a number of problems facing urban fringe agriculture:

  • environmental health problems associated with agricultural spray drift
  • inefficient use of irrigation water
  • pesticide pollution
  • the movement of hobby farmers onto agricultural land
  • a lack of landuse zoning to prevent further loss of agricultural land.

That such problems persist was disclosed by a series of investigate articles that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2001. Under the headline ‘Sydney’s tainted food scandal’, Herald journalists disclosed that much of the city’s production of fresh vegetables was ” …grown… by migrant farmers who regularly misuse pesticides, often damaging their own health and potentially putting consumers at risk… The… frequently poor farmers who work on the city fringes are misusing dangerous pesticides and becoming ill, in many cases because they cannot read the complex English-only labels… “.

More than half the market gardeners reported becoming ill after using chemicals

The Herald found that government reports, as well as their own interviews that spanned two months, documented:

  • the mixing of agricultural chemicals with bare hands
  • spraying of “potent” chemicals without masks or protective clothing
  • the use of veterinary chemicals on crops
  • the practice of farmers of smelling chemicals to identify them.

This breaches standards of occupational health and are a serious human and environmental health hazard.

“More than half the market gardeners reported becoming ill after using chemicals”, the Herald reported. “A long-awaited report of the Premier’s specially established task force into Sydney’s market gardeners warneed that misuse of pesticides risks contaminating the $150 million worth of Sydney-grown vegetables sold to consumers each year”.

At the time, NSW Agriculture was reported to have slashed its food testing programme that monitors contamination by agricultural chemicals. After the Herald investigation, however, the department appointed an officer to educate farmers about safe chemical use.

A future in doubt

The environment lobbies talk much of sustainability yet they have a poor record when it comes to the sustainability of the urban food supply. It is only recently that they have become aware of food as an issue and it was probably genetic engineering and land degradation that drove them to that. Now, they are paying a belated attention to the broader issues.

They have also been quiet on what pushes urban growth in Sydney – a population growing at the rate of 1000 a week, most of whom are overseas immigrants. This is touchy territory with potential to upset the city’s ethnic lobbies, yet, as Premier Carr said, it is a real issue in need of addressing. Short of reducing the immigration intake or encouraging or stipulating that new immigrants must go elsewhere than Sydney, there appears little that can be done.

A sensible approach would be to compile a land capability survey

Reducing the numbers coming to Sydney would have only an indirect influence on the loss of agricultural land on the urban fringe. It is government – local and state – that can have a more direct and immediate influence and that could save the urban fringe market gardeners and the land they farm. That can only be done by introducing legislation that leads to the zoning of land for agricultural use.

A sensible approach would be to compile a land capability survey of the remnant agricultural lands of the Sydney Basin. An assessment would disclose areas of agricultural potential, comprised of the more fertile soils, and those of limited potential. It is these low-quality lands that could be set aside for urban development.

Without doing something like this to retain urban fringe farming as a viable, small-scale and  family-based industry, Sydney residents are likely to be faced with an increasing food bill as foods are brought in from further afield. And there are costs other than monetary – increased use of fuel, increased road traffic and food that is less then fresh by the time it is served.

Sydney is fortunate in having its fresh foods – vegetables, fruit, poultry – sourced from its immediate hinterland. Only timely government policy will keep it that way.

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