Farmers threaten to “rip up trees” if proposed new government regulations for Pick Your Own go ahead
Each weekend hundreds, sometimes thousands, flock to Pick Your Own farms across the Hawkesbury and especially in the Bilpin area, known as The Land of the Mountain Apple, but that is under threat with new State government rules floated dramatically limiting the number of visitors.
The owner of one very successful operation – the Bilpin Fruit Bowl, which sees around 600 visitors a day – says she will likely rip up her trees and sell up if the proposals go ahead.
One of the mooted proposals, which would see agri-tourism included in Local Environment Plans across the State, could see visitors to PYO limited to 50 people per event on just 10 days a year, with a best case scenario of 32 guests each week, 52 times a year.
At a public meeting held last Friday there were some claims it could mean 50 people at a time could enter, which is slightly better, but there is no way of enforcing or policing that at each farm gate and it would ruin local PYO businesses.
“We get 5-600 people a day,” says Bilpin Fruit Bowl owner, Margaret Tadrosse.
“For them [State government] to put those kinds of limits on it, it’s not worth us opening.”
“We have 20,000 fruit trees. We have been here nearly 40 years. We are not going back to doing Coles and Woollies, we have been there, done that. Once these limitations are put on it we will look at pulling out our trees and selling up, because it’s not viable anymore. I will pull out every tree, and most of the farmers will be doing the same thing and all we’ll be doing is eating imported fruit, because there will be no more farming industry from NSW,” she says.
After the devastating Black Summer bushfires which roared through Bilpin region, farmers, including Mrs Tadrosse received government funding to re-build and in some cases expand their operations.
“We had a $1.2m grant, and we put $600,000 of our own money on top of that to build a hot house,” says Mrs Tadrosse.
They have so far planted 36,000 strawberry plants in the first hot house which means visitors can pick the fruit year round. A second hothouse is about to be opened.
“So we are open, selling strawberries, so what do we do now if this goes ahead? There is this rumour saying existing businesses are exempt, this is incorrect, there is no exemption for existing businesses. We don’t even know why they want to change the rules,” she says.
“Nobody wants this. Nobody wants to see farmers being shut down like this. For Bilpin itself, we are just outside the Sydney basin. We are an hour and 15 mins from anywhere in Sydney. It’s doable for anyone in Sydney to put their kids in the car and let’s go for a quick drive and pick some fruit in Bilpin.
It’s an activity people love to do. With what they are trying to implement, I’m allowed only 500 people per picking season. It’s just stupid and it’s scary stuff because it not only affects the agriculture, it also affects agri-tourism and B&Bs and cafes. It affects any business that relies on tourism trade. It has far reaching implications.”
“We understand there has to be regulation and we’re happy to look at regulation but what they’re suggesting is sheer lunacy.”
The proposed new State regulations – currently called Agri-tourism and Small-Scale Agriculture Development – seeks to add some rules around farm operations because agritourism businesses have been operating in what one official told the Post was “a planning rule desert for the last 20 to 30 years”.
At the public meeting organised by Bells Line of Road Business Council at the Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club, over 40 businesses heard about proposed caps on the number of farm gate visitors they could host and the likely requirement that they might all have to lodge DA to be allowed to continue to operate.
Several Hawkesbury councillors, including the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, plus MPs Robyn Preston and Susan Templeman were also at the meeting with Hawkesbury State MP Preston suggesting it might be possible to lobby Minister Anthony Roberts for PYO operations to be exempt.
“It is clear that the group [of farmers and locals at the meeting] sees Pick Your Own as integral to the social fabric and economy of the area,” said Angela Maguire who is President of the Hawkesbury Harvest Trails and Markets, an umbrella organisation for the local agri-tourism industry.
“Our State Member [Robyn Preston] said she wanted pick your own farms to be removed entirely from these proposed rules,” says Ms Macguire.
She has also undertaken to organise a faceto- face meeting for Hawkesbury Harvest with the Minister for Planning week commencing 20th June when parliament returns, says Ms Maguire.
“We are grateful for the attention we have received and will continue to lobby for fair and reasonable regulation of agri-tourism in New South Wales that encourages existing and new businesses to invest in experiences consumers are demanding,” Ms Maguire said.
Ms Preston told the Post she thought the meeting was very productive.
“Those attending were able to clearly relay to me their concerns, which I agree with,” she said. “I will take those concerns to Minister Roberts next week. I also invited two representatives from the group to attend the meeting with Minister Roberts and they were appreciative of that. There is still time to put our case forward and Minister Roberts has been very obliging in listening about this matter. He wants to find a solution that doesn’t impact PYO farmers and we will work on this over the coming weeks.”
Removing PYO from the proposed changes is seen as imperative by the PYO businesses because if the changes as proposed go ahead it would mean each operator would have to apply to Hawkesbury Council for a Development Application, which is a known lengthy, detailed, and expensive business.
“Who knows what Council might ask for in a DA, besides a long list of reports from consultants that no one can afford,” Mike Spurling of Bilpin Farm Stays, told the Post.