Losing licence to farm

One of Australia’s top farmers is in danger of losing his licence to farm:

David Blackmore’s wagyu beef is on the menu at some of the world’s most famous restaurants. The Victorian farmer counts US chefs Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck, England’s Heston Blumenthal, and locally, Rockpool’s Neil Perry among his fans.

The heavily-marbled beef, from the famed Japanese kobe beef bloodstock, can fetch up to $150kg at gourmet butchers.

The 5th generation farmer is a poster boy for Australian produce, featuring in Tourism Australia’s campaign to attract food lovers to visit the country. Chef Martin Benn from three-hat Sydney restaurant Sepia recently took Blackmore’s wagyu to New York as part of a showcase of Australian food.

There’s a steady trail of documentary film makers through his farm in Alexandra, 150km from Melbourne.

On Monday, Blackmore, 65, received yet another award for his beef at the Sydney Opera House. He was the 2012 livestock producer of the year.

But now he looks set to lose the Victorian farm where he’s been raising cattle for the last 11 years after a neighbour complained to the local council, saying, among other things, the farm attracted too many noisy cockatoos.

Last month, a majority of councillors ignored the advice of planning staff who recommended the Blackmore’s business continue, albeit under strict new guidelines, including a bird management plan, voting 4-2 against the continued use of the farm to raise the prized cattle.

The decision has alarmed farming community and chefs such as Neil Perry, who’ve started a petition backing Blackmore and calling on the Victorian government to intervene.

The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) labelled Murrindindi Shire Council’s decision “absurd”, with the potential to “undermine the prosperity and future of agriculture in this state”.

VFF president Peter Tuohey said his organisation was worried that councils like this would use planning laws to stifle the growth of Victorian agriculture in rural areas.

“The fact is David Blackmore and his family were willing to comply with a raft of 20 permit conditions – from maintaining paddock cover to bird management,” Tuohey said. “Yet the councillors rejected the permit on the basis of three brief dot points that had already been addressed under the permit conditions.

“This is a roadblock to one of Australia’s most innovative livestock pioneering families.”

The 20-page planning report prepared by council staff was referred to several state government authorities, including the EPA, who all backed approving the continued use of the site to raise cattle.

While the VFF believe the Blackmores have a strong case to overturn the decision on appeal, David Blackmore told Business Insider he may look at selling up, and two other councils have already been in touch offering him incentives to relocate to their regions.

The Blackmore’s farm contributes an estimated $3 million annually to Murrindindi’s local economy and another $3m to the Victorian economy. It employs 10 people, along with Blackmore and his wife, Julie. Their beef is exported to 20 countries.

The planning dispute is over the intensity of the farming. Neighbours complained about noise and odours. Council is concerned about the environmental impact on the landscape.

Blackmore runs 1350 head of cattle on the 150 hectares, grain feeding them to create the distinctive marbling that’s the hallmark of wagyu beef.

He bought the farm in 2004 and says his stocking levels are lower than they were in 2001 under the previous owners.

“It’s been a feeding farm since 1998 and we did a lot due diligence before we bought it,” he said. “Everyone said we didn’t need a license.”

But Murrindindi council took a different view following the complaints. Blackmore says the problem was deciding what sort of permit was needed. Some argued it was a feedlot, but eventually it was designated as “intensive animal husbandry” and a permit was required.

Everyone signed off on it until it got to council. Blackmore has until the end of August to decide what his next step is. . . . 

We visited this farm a couple of years ago and were very impressed with what we saw and heard.

Blackmore has spent years and large sums of money in research, breeding, improving the farm, and developing and maintaining markets. His office wall was lined with awards and media clippings praising what he’d achieved on farm for animal welfare and environmental practices, and in the market.

Chef Neil Perry is furious. He’s been using Blackmore’s beef in all his restaurants since opening Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne in 2006. The chef has started an online petition, appealing to Victorian premier Daniel Andrews and the agriculture minister to intervene so the Blackmores can continue to farm there.

“The council are saying this is all about intensive factory farming. I can tell you it’s not,” Perry told Business Insider.

“It’s just really ridiculous what they’re trying to say. There is no more ethical, sustainable farm in Australia and he’s a world benchmark for what ethical, sustainable farming is.

“This is what great farming is all about. It’s a beautiful and we should be proud of it.”

The chef has taken numerous other chefs to see the farm and laughs at the complaints about birds.

“Every time I’ve visited over the last 10 years there’s been cockatoos everywhere around the region,” he said. “How can they all be David’s fault?”

Blackmore says he put a lot of work into restoring the landscape on the farm over the last decade. The recommended permit, which council knocked back, demanded even more, but the farmer says he was already doing the work because “it was a good idea for animal welfare and economically as well”.

He cites the fact that the cattle put on 20% more average daily weight gain than they did in feedlot as proof that his farming methods work

“It’s because the cattle are happier,” Blackmore says. “We’re really open about what we do. It’s not as though we’re trying to put anything over anyone.” . . 

There is cold-comfort in the words of Shire mayor, Margaret Rae:

“It’s been disheartening to see that the message being portrayed is that Murrindindi Shire Council is ‘shutting down’ the Blackmore farming operation and that the owners are being ‘kicked out’. This is absolutely not the case,” the mayor said.

“Council’s refusal of this particular application does not prohibit Mr Blackmore from continuing to farm his land the way he was prior to choosing to intensify his program through intensive animal husbandry practices, which triggered the requirement to apply for a planning permit and also prompted concerns from neighbouring properties.”

Mayor Rae was one of the councillors who voted in favour of Blackmore being granted the permit he was denied. Her statement makes no mention of the fact that the vote ignored the advice of planning staff who recommended the beef farming business continue at its current level, albeit under strict new guidelines. . . 

Returning to how he used to farm would put an end to the business.

This is happening in Australia but it could easily happen here.

Meadow Mushrooms in Hawkes Bay, which has been operating for decades, is facing problems since a new residential subdivision was located near by.

The difficulty of maintaining the licence to farm will increase as urban sprawl,  lifetyle blocks and the imbalance in numbers and power between city and country continue to grow.

43 Responses to Losing licence to farm

  1. Mr E says:

    Good article Ele,

    I am not sure if you are up with what is happening here in Southland regarding stocking rate rules.

    It seems the council is also trying to establish rules for the majority – a licence to farm, so to speak.

    There seems to have been a very big push back by the public despite the timing of release of this proposal.

    Like

  2. Roger Barton says:

    We have no issue with layering down more layers of concrete and asphalt in the name of progress, no mention of the environmental destruction in doing so, but woe betide an agricultural producer. Watch out NZ Ag it’s all getting closer to you as well!

    Like

  3. homepaddock says:

    Thanks for the updates, Mr E.

    Like

  4. farmerbraun says:

    The tort of nuisance applies in Australia.
    The neighbours should apply to the court for an order to have the nuisance cease.
    That they appear not to have done so means that they probably do not have a leg to stand on, hence the attempt to bypass the legal process through an inappropriate channel.

    The rational response should be to engage suitable legal counsel , blow the neighbours away , and get costs awarded against them.
    End of problem.

    Like

  5. Mr E says:

    ” they probably do not have a leg to stand on”

    I wonder what the noise is? Tractors running, cattle mooing? None of which are likely to surpass noise level breaches.

    I wonder what the dust is ? Trucks on roads? Not likely to breach any rules.

    I wonder what the issue with birds is…. oh forget it.

    I wonder what they have done to work with the farmer in any issues?

    Dust, noise, birds, all seem manageable aspects.

    Like

  6. farmerbraun says:

    “Dust, noise, birds, all seem manageable aspects.”
    But unless they are at extreme , or unreasonable levels , then none of them, as you say , constitute nuisance, and cannot provide reasonable cause to be seeking relief through the legal system.
    Failure to first attempt resolution with the alleged offending neighbour would be viewed by the court with some considerable suspicion that there is an unrelated agenda being pursued by the complainant.

    Like

  7. farmerbraun says:

    As you can probably tell, I’ve had a bit of experience with nuisance in law.
    It is very simple really ; just keep the reasonable effects of your operation within your boundaries.There is a very heavy influence on what a reasonable person might consider acceptable. The law has , quite rightly, no time for unreasonable persons.
    Anyone with a bee in their bonnet will get short shrift from the court and will likely pay all the costs.

    Like

  8. farmerbraun says:

    I mean “emphasis ” – not “influence”. 🙂

    Like

  9. Dave Kennedy says:

    This doco seems to be a balanced overview of the situation. There does seem to be some issues that need to be addressed for neighbouring businesses etc but they don’t seem insurmountable.

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2015/s4286263.htm

    Like

  10. farmerbraun says:

    From the transcript, it would appear that he employs rotational grazing, perhaps cell grazing , along with supplementary feeding in situ.
    He mills the grains himself.
    It appears that the vexatious and frivolous complaint from the neighbours would apply equally to the feeding of maize silage, because it also attracts large numbers of birds.
    There is no story here , other than the fact that the complainant does not want to tolerate farming practices that are quite widespread.

    Like

  11. farmerbraun says:

    The feeding of supplements along fence lines is usually to reduce wastage from trampling.

    Like

  12. farmerbraun says:

    Wagyu beef involves substantial grain input to meet specifications for marbling.
    The question , still unanswered in N.Z. , is – what % of feed is permitted as supplement on a grazing property before the system is classified as intensive?
    More relevant, to the issue of nitrogen leaching , is whether the supplement is grown on -farm , or imported.

    Like

  13. Name Withheld says:

    There does seem to be some issues that need to be addressed for neighboring businesses
    Not sure what doco you are referring to, but the only business, apart from a fellow farmer, cited, is a caravan park.

    When you have a rural shire council led by a mayor with….
    “More than 20 years experience in the university sector in Victoria ” And Councillors that include ……
    “A background in journalism and public relations being a consultant and publicist for more than 30 years. ”
    “A motelier.”
    “Worked with the Australian Navy as a weapons technician.”
    “A varied career background public relations, the arts and hospitality and tourism throughout Australia.”
    ” Retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel after 21 years service”
    “Has worked for the Royal Australian Air Force as a Military Research Scientist”……
    All worthy occupations certainly, but I do fear for this farmer getting a realistic rural perspective from them. More so because they went against their own staff advice.
    I am sure this trend is present in many NZ councils.
    Google “treechangers”

    Like

  14. Mr E says:

    The question is Farmer Braun, how do you classify a farmer as “intensified”.
    I think it is a term that has been used without definition. Consequently it has been used to make questionable accusations against good farmers

    Like

  15. farmerbraun says:

    ” how do you classify a farmer as “intensified”.”

    There are probably a few ways.
    Farms that are not self-contained under normal circumstances could be said to have become more intensive, through the mechanism of bought – in feed.

    That would still be very vague.
    NZ farms cannot produce their own phosphorus, potassium (in some cases) and a range of minor and trace elements. and all of those things are also exported in product.

    But relying on purchased feedstuffs would seem to be part of a criterion for intensification.

    Like

  16. Mr E says:

    “There are probably a few ways.
    Farms that are not self-contained”

    I know an organic farmer that regularly cannot live within his means. I can only guess his reaction at being identified as an intensive farmer.

    Whilst it is an interesting definition I doubt if many would agree with this definition.

    My point still stands. What is intensification? It is used so often to slur some farmers, but I am yet to here a qualified definition.

    Like

  17. farmerbraun says:

    The evidence points to it not having been defined , particularly for any regulatory purpose, in NZ.
    I understand that some shires in Australia have arrived at some sort of definition.

    Most would accept that a feed-lot is intensive. A self-contained farm is not . Between lies a continuum with no defined cut-off points.

    Organic farmers who are certified have strict limits on bought-in feed.

    Like

  18. Mr E says:

    “Most would accept that a feed-lot is intensive.”

    A feed lot that sources the feed from land – applies nutrients in a climate friendly way …. Is that intensive?

    I know a proposed one that has proposed a N leachate of 7kgN/ha.

    Is that intensive?

    Organic farmers who are certified have strict limits on bought-in feed.

    What about organic farmers that cant finish their animals organically and sell there livestock store – to finish uncertified? They are not living within their feed means.

    Like

  19. farmerbraun says:

    You would be right about the organic farmers , except that there is no rule that says you must be a finisher.
    Neither do I have to rear the 60% of my annual bovine offspring that are males. Similarly I don’t have to finish any lambs if I so wish.

    But the thing is this – intensity says nothing ; it is a qualifier.
    The question is – intensity of what?
    It could be self -sufficiency in part; it could be S.U./ are ; it could be nitrogen loss/ are; or nitrogen loss/carbon store; it might be some other environmental aspect.
    It could be something totally unscientific like AGW impact 🙂
    You can probably think of some others.

    Intensive is just an adjective. What is the noun that it qualifies? I suggest that there isn’t one. I think you agree.

    Like

  20. farmerbraun says:

    Well , there you go . Labour /are and capital (financial?)/are.
    I didn’t think of those ones.

    http://www.ecifm.rdg.ac.uk/intensive&extensive.htm

    Like

  21. farmerbraun says:

    Here we go Mr E. – from the horse’s mouth , or is it an ass?

    “Intensive farming
    includes any agricultural production which results in the creation of

    living matter and which is carried out primarily within buildings,

    including but not limited to such activities as poultry farming

    (excluding low density free range poultry or the keeping of fewer

    than 12 birds), rabbit or fitch farming, pig farming or mushroom production.
    For the purpose of this Plan ‘intensive farming’ excludes horticulture.”

    http://ecan.govt.nz/our-responsibilities/regional-plans/regional-plans-under-development/Pages/definitions.aspx

    Like

  22. Mr E says:

    It is a mess Farmerbraun,

    How do we expect farmer behaviour change when we can’t even define the problem?

    Like

  23. TraceyS says:

    As I see it, the risk of ending up with a criminal charge against your land-based business (not just farming) is almost inevitable over long time scales, and most of these businesses are long term (often inter-generational) operations.

    If it’s not an environmental breach it will be health and safety.

    The risk averse operators will exit, eventually, leaving those who accept higher risks and, consequently, expect higher returns.

    How is this good…for anyone?

    The government should clearly signal that human life is the priority over the natural environment given that most of this country’s workplace fatalities occur on the land or sea. Once we’ve got that right, then move on with business priority number two, environment.

    Some may question why not both? To that I would say if you overwhelm people with “thou shalt”s you just end up with resistance.

    How is that good for anyone?

    Like

  24. TraceyS says:

    I believe it is the same situation referred to here (http://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/349332/effluent-ponding-brings-40500-fine) at the bottom of the article.

    Like

  25. Mr E says:

    “He was approached by the council to host a visit from newly appointed chief executive Peter Bodeker as part of his initiation to the province.

    While touring the farm Vollweiler was asked about pending environmental issues he would need to address. He identified logging.”

    “Never again will I invite the regional council on to my property in a situation like that.”

    This farmer was a monitor farmer, somebody who by design seeks help for problems. As environmental leader, he drew the councils attention to his area of concern looking for solutions. He took on their suggestions then they decided to prosecute him.

    The last remark is one I have heard from other Otago farmers. Like many Southland farmers they want environmental solutions but they are now too afraid to open their gates and ask for help.

    When I hear this I think compliance and education are out of balance. The big loser is the environment.

    I think this council is burning bridges it desperately needs. The end result will be slower than possible environmental progress.

    Like

  26. TraceyS says:

    I read it, Mr E, and it does concern me. This one is relevant enough for me to seek out the Court docs so I can better understand what happened here. Learning from the pitfalls others have discovered means that their experiences (and money) are not wasted.

    So why can’t I find these documents online? And why isn’t my RMA lawyer writing reviews on cases such as these to forewarn clients? I guess there is more to be made by being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff (and lesser risk of upsetting the authorities too).

    “Asked how Vollweiler should have dealt with the trash in the river, MacLean said good logging practice would have ensured it never got in the river to begin with. Otherwise, more care should have been taken to remove the trash without disturbing the river bed, he said.”

    Surely “good logging practice” should first and foremost be what is safe for workers. This is my earlier point.

    Best safe practice and best environmental practice don’t coincide 100% of the time. So, when they don’t align, where should the compromise be? The present regulatory environment says there shouldn’t be compromise anywhere, and because safety and the environment are regulated by separate agencies, under separate laws, they’re completely separate issues. But that is not the reality for those working on the land. For them, the issues are intimately related, and because there is only so much time and resources available there will always be compromise.

    I take today as a example. My plan was to work on our hazard register – mainly adding controls and assessing risk levels pre, and post, control implementation. However, instead spent most of the day working on environmental planning. I don’t feel comfortable with that but there is only so much time in the day.

    “I think compliance and education are out of balance.” I think that the priorities are out of balance and no one is helping businesses to balance them. What is needed is an inter-agency approach that integrates safety and environment best-practice to better reflect the realities we work with.

    I’m not saying that galaxiids aren’t important. But to be frank, they are not as important as my husband, brother or son coming home safe at the end of the working day. It would be nice to hear some politicians agree.

    James Shaw said it quite well in a recent interview with Matt Freeman, albeit discussing the subject of mining, rather than farming:

    “…we know that we will have to deal with some really sticky compromises and there are some really awkward conversations to be had.”

    No reason not to have them.

    Like

  27. Dave Kennedy says:

    Mr E, I still don’t have your email address, hence the contact here. Just thought you may be interested in this seminar that I am helping organise on soil health:

    Soil Seminar- talk, slides, questions

    When- 7-9pm, Thursday 15 October
    Where – Winton Commercial Hotel (Top Pub) Garden Bar, 327 Great North Road

    Richard Morgan
    Professor of Geography at the University of Otago
    • We all value good, productive, healthy soil: but what is soil health?
    • How can it be affected by human actions?
    • What does this suggest for the sustainable management of soil?

    Jodi Halleux
    Environmental Consultant, Davis Consulting Group,

    • What does contaminated mean in a legal context?
    • What does it mean when you’re told your land is or may be contaminated?
    • What kind of process do environmental consultants take landowners through when investigating, managing and remediating these kinds of sites.

    International Year of Soils- Tiaki o Papatuanuku http://www.ilovesoil.kiwi

    I also have Steve Ellison from Soil Health Ltd attending:
    http://www.soilhealth.co.nz/

    If you are interested in coming I’ll even shout you a meal and a drink? I intend to be there from about 6pm and if you would like a lift (sharing transport for a lower carbon footprint) you would be most welcome 😉

    Like

  28. Will Dwan says:

    What kind of idiot invites the council onto his land? Tell them you’re Maori and deny access.

    Like

  29. farmerbraun says:

    I now require my regional council to advise in writing in advance of a request for entry, and they must, on every occasion , sign a statutory declaration which addresses the biosecurity issues.
    The council’s inability to comply , despite repeated requests, led to a situation where advice to us was that issuance of a trespass notice against the council was appropriate.
    At that point compliance was achieved(with some occasional non-compliances.)

    Like

  30. Mr E says:

    Dave,

    Thanks but no thanks Dave,
    Thursday nights are usually not good for me. I am already committed and have turned down other important opportunities.

    Will,
    Tracey has been pointing out how difficult balancing regulation can be. I suspect farmers will try and fall back on Health and Safety regulations to overcome council access rights.

    Like

  31. Mr E says:

    Farmer Braun,
    That is a new one. Sad though.

    Like

  32. Dave Kennedy says:

    Mr E, I will keep trying to engage in an open transparent way. According to Allan he has yet to hear anything about the meeting you are organising (I would have thought he would be the logical one to approach) but am still waiting for the email while my calendar is filling rapidly.

    Like

  33. TraceyS says:

    I’m sure that health and safety changes will have many farmers considering issues around access and this is probably overdue. The impact on goodwill is a shame though.

    Speaking of goodwill, a farmer allowed members of the public access through his farm to the river for recreation. The river was fenced from stock but a cow and calf had gotten through. So the visitors rang the council to report it and the farmer was then contacted by the not-too-happy council. The members of the public subsequently lost their access through the farm. No surprise there. Why not contact the farmer first? Some people just do not realise what goodwill is it seems.

    Here we have aspects of safety and environment risk combined. The farmer is increasing his health and safety risk by allowing public access. And without goodwill on the part of the public accessing the property he is also increasing his risk of an environmental charge. So why allow access? It’s all downside. Goodwill is a diminishing commodity and can’t be relied on anymore. The stakes have been made too high.

    I think it might be better to have a points system for land based businesses (preferably combining both H&S and environmental compliance – with very high weighting towards safety until that is under better control on more properties). There is already an example in the NZTA Operator Rating System (ORS) http://www.nzta.govt.nz/commercial-driving/operator-rating-system-ors/what-is-the-ors/.

    If stars or points breach a nominated threshold then rights would be lost rather than turning every farmer into a potential criminal.

    When applied nationwide, it would also highlight the inconsistencies between different regions and potentially show which councils/agency regions are being overly tough (or soft). That might have a hope of providing the balance and consistency that is good for people, the environment, and business.

    Like

  34. Mr E says:

    Tracey,

    “I think it might be better to have a points system for land based businesses”

    I dont like these concepts of licences to operate. I think they show distrust for the masses.

    I think education is the opportunity. The forestry industry decided to pull it’s socks up after the independant forestry safety review.

    Worksafe have been working hard with them to put adequate systems in place. And whilst they have not ignored compliance activities they have shifted the focus to collaboration and education.

    Consequently the number of serious injuries declined by 35% – or 5 per month.

    Goodwill and trust were the leading principles.

    I hope that farmers continue to lead with goodwill. But I also hope they hold councils and regulators accountable for their lack of theirs.

    Like

  35. Mr E says:

    Dave,

    “I will keep trying to engage in an open transparent way”

    Is that what you do here?

    I have sent several emails. It is possible I am getting spammed.

    I presume you raised the opportunity with Allan and he is keen? I’ll not bother pushing further with emails if that is the case.

    Like

  36. Dave Kennedy says:

    Mr E, I have looked for the emails and am beginning to doubt your honesty (I will apologise if they turn up). No one I have spoken to in the local Feds have heard a whisper from you as I was quite keen to have an actual debate and include some of the information from the soil seminar. Can you give me the dates you sent them? I seriously doubt that if they were legitimate that they wouldn’t be spammed as I get heaps of emails from a variety of sources every day and haven’t experienced this problem before. If you provide me with your email here I can do a search and see what comes up (I could have missed them if i didn’t know what to look for).

    “I presume you raised the opportunity with Allan and he is keen? I’ll not bother pushing further with emails if that is the case.” I would presume to speak for you he has only been asked about any mention about myself, I was leaving that to you (Mr E the slippery eel) 😉

    Like

  37. Dave Kennedy says:

    oops, “I wouldn’t presume to speak for you”

    Like

  38. TraceyS says:

    “I don’t like these concepts of licences to operate. I think they show distrust for the masses.”

    Fair enough Mr E, but it seems like things are headed in that direction anyway, like it or not.

    I think of that ad on TV where the woman is driving through the town and the people on the street all have numbers on them. A girl steps out to cross the road, but luckily her number is not up, and only her bag gets hit. I’ve just now been out for a drive and saw numerous properties with invisible “numbers” on them – mainly because of issues with stock access to waterways. I see those as sitting ducks, maybe not even realising that their number may be up one day and that might result in a prosecution.

    Wouldn’t it be better to have the number (eg. points +/- for safety and environmental compliance) on a piece of paper rather than on the backs of operators? Save prosecution for the very worst of offences.

    I don’t disagree on the importance of education. But I do not think that improvements in the harm record within the forestry industry are primarily due to education and systems. Shifting of focus, attention and resources as well as changing attitudes are probably the biggest factors. The best systems in the world won’t have any significant impact without such shifts. Regarding trust and goodwill – there are ways to maintain these and build them up.

    You can’t tell me that there isn’t an informal “brownie points” system operating already in some areas which serves some players better than others. One’s score on the “attitude test” also makes a difference…

    Like

  39. farmerbraun says:

    ” issues with stock access to waterways.”
    That is not necessarily illegal , is it?

    Like

  40. TraceyS says:

    Sure farmerbraun that’s true with stock access. But I see “issues”. Not sure if they’re legal issues. But if it were my property I’d be at least considering it from a risk management angle. There’s nothing so unproductive as getting caught up in a regulatory tangle. Even if you don’t agree with the rules, it is good governance to avoid unproductive activities where at all possible.

    Like

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