Wine region protection worries other farmers

Landmark laws to protect two premium wine regions from urban sprawl have pleased many, but not all farmers in such things as dairy production.

The character preservation legislation passed by the South Australian Parliament covers 40,000 hectares of farm land in the McLaren Vale region, south of Adelaide, and almost 150,000 hectares in the Barossa Valley, to the north-east of the city.

It prohibits land in the zones from being subdivided for housing and removes the planning minister's power to approve major developments without parliamentary scrutiny.

Rosemount Estate chief winemaker Matt Koch is pleased there will be laws to protect his region from being overrun by suburbia.

"It gives us the opportunity to not stop progression but at least have our say in progression and give a voice for the future of McLaren Vale and wine regions in general," he said.

Dudley Brown has been one of those fighting for better protection.

"If you're an agriculture producer anywhere within two or three hours of a city, if you're not looking at legislation like this to protect your agricultural areas, you won't be in business in 25 years," he said.

Mr Brown is a grape grower and winemaker who moved to Australia almost a decade ago from Orange in California after his region disappeared under cement.

"A city of almost 100,000 got built and it was all orange groves when I got there and I was like "What a beautiful place" and literally seven years later it was sort of gone," he said.

When Mr Brown saw housing start to crawl towards his vineyard in the McLaren Vale region, he was determined to nip it in the bud.

He suggested McLaren Vale follow the lead of another wine region, the Napa Valley in the US, which is protected from development under the Williamson Act.

"Basic land - agriculture and land prices in Napa Valley 40 years ago, McLaren Vale were probably fairly similar, maybe around $1,000 an acre.

Today an acre of vineyard in Napa Valley is $300,000 an acre, where in McLaren Vale it's $35,000 or $40,000.

$35,000 or $40,000 sounds pretty good until you hear $300,000," he said.

Efforts to stop encroachment of housing into wine areas of South Australia gained momentum when producers in the Barossa Valley joined the fight.

"We think for the two most-valuable wine regions in Australia to join together to do this is going to make quite a splash nationally and internationally," Mr Brown said.

Not all vineyards In the Barossa Valley, even though vineyards have expanded rapidly over the past decade they take up less than 10 per cent of the preserved area and more than three quarters is used for cropping and grazing.

Not everyone who works in these industries is as pleased with the character preservation legislation.

Peter Grocke is a mixed farmer at Gomersal in the Barossa Valley and a vocal opponent of the laws.

"The laws in the bill are for landscape aesthetic beauty preservation, nothing to do with the reality of broadacre staple food production and they are designed to key-up tourism in the wine industry," he said.

The third-generation sheep and crop farmer says prominent figures in the premium food and wine industry have helped shape the laws, but the more grassroots agricultural sector has been shut out of high-level talks.

"The broadacre farming group has on multiple occasions sought meetings with the Minister for Planning.

We've got so much money invested within this industry, we've got an equal right to sit around the table with any minister," he said.

Planning Minister John Rau conceded most of the feedback and lobbying had been from the food and wine interests.

"I'm not aware of being approached by people individually or collectively to speak particularly about broadacre farm issues," he said.

"They (food and wine interests) have been the most visible people, but I've never had the impression that they were speaking in a voice that everyone else found unacceptable.

"How do they feel that they've been badly done by in this process? I mean, we haven't affected them at all except said that, "You will not be converting your broadacre farm into a housing estate." There has been much debate about what the character part of the preservation laws actually covers.

Jan Angas' home Hutton Vale at Angaston certainly is not short of character.

She shares the historic property with husband John.

They produce premium lamb, wool, wine and a bit of grain.

The passionate foodie is also an outspoken advocate for the protection laws.

"The preserved bill is not trying to set the rules.

It's trying to set the position.

We're trying to say we want to keep the character, so then we have to work out exactly what it is in that character that we see as valuable and then put planning rules to it so we don't destroy it," she said.

Under the rules, councils most often will ultimately decide which developments fit in and which do not.

Ms Angas says aesthetics must play an important part in those decisions.

"If we allow three-storey mass Colorbond sheds alongside someone that's doing a very low-key tourism operation that you can hardly see and is very smart and stylish, if you hit both of those at the same time you're sending a mixed message," she said.

'Can't hide' Jeff Kernich is a fifth-generation dairy farmer in the Barossa Valley and says tourism is getting the key say.

"Unfortunately, I think a lot of the thought that's behind this protection act is more about the tourists that are coming to the area who come for the wine tours, etcetera.

And I don't have a problem with tourists.

I invite tourists to come and see my operation.

I love tourists coming to see my operation, but I can't hide what I'm doing," he said.

While other milk producers have exited the industry, Mr Kernich has hung on by value-adding.

Next to his dairy in a converted shipping container is a tiny processing plant where jersey cream and milk are bottled.

After eight years in these cosy quarters, he is keen to expand but worried that the people interpreting the character preservation rules will not take into account the realities of farming and will put visibility ahead of viability.

"To remain viable, for the whole family to continue we need to increase our cow numbers quite considerably, but of course with that sort of thing comes building sheds, building dairies, building factories and they are all things that we're concerned that maybe down the track people will look at and say "Well that sticks out like a sore thumb on top of a hill" and we may have difficulties getting that sort of expansion through," he said.

Mr Rau doubts such farming will run into problems.

"If a farmer wished to diversify and in order to do that they had to put some plant, for example, on their property, provided that plant complied with the council rules about setbacks and all the usual things one would expect that's entirely in character with the region, because the plant would be an adjunct to or a part of the normal activity, the historically-established activity of the region," the Minister said.

As a milk producer who has watched his industry all but disappear, Mr Kernich questions whether any farming activity can be considered normal.

"The character has already changed vastly to what the character was 10 to 15 years ago, so are we trying to protect what's here now or are we trying to protect the character that was there in my forefathers' days?" he asked.

Another fifth-generation farmer who can probably see things from more sides than most is Michael Heinrich.

He grows hay, grain and grapes at Tanunda in the Barossa.

While he supports a freeze on housing developments, he is not convinced protection laws are going to increase the value or profitability of his patch.

"Laws like this, it's their job to then sort of ...

provide a means for an economic sustainability for farmers because, if that doesn't happen, ultimately I suggest that the character of the area will change regardless of any sort of state legislation," he said.

"Can't see why the land values will increase.

Certainly vineyard values have decreased lately.

Cropping land, we're not sure but time will tell.

But I can't see the connection at this point." In a region with small blocks and diverse industries, farm sustainability is a big issue and despite being part of the viticulture and broadacre industries, Mr Heinrich says sometimes the two do not exactly see eye to eye.

"Had a bit of an issue with it where the vines have expanded into ...

[the] cropping area and change of land use has been granted for vineyards, say, and then there's an automatic expectation that the pre-existing farmers will change their management practices at their cost to comply with their new neighbour," he said.

"And [I am] not sure if that's necessarily fair." It is an issue that has been raised in a parliamentary inquiry into sustainable farming, an inquiry Mr Heinrich and Mr Grocke say should have been finished before anyone started looking at protection laws.

"If you've got a damaged farming system, let's fix it.

Let's make it useable, farmer friendly, then we can go about protecting the systems which we know are fixed and reasonable to work within," Mr Grocke said.

But the man who drove the momentum for the laws, Dudley Brown, says they not only protect agricultural land, they encourage farmers to be more sustainable.

"If your vineyard's right next to where the suburbs are, you're half thinking, "Hey, I'll be the next one subdivided and get the big pay cheque" and so maybe you don't invest in your property, or if they know there's no alternative they go "Right, I have got to make my living here, I have got to do the best I can." Big picture Mr Brown says there is also the bigger picture to consider.

"We set aside areas of the country, you know, 20, 50, 150 years ago that were so special we called them national parks because they should never be developed on.

And when you think about food security for the country I think we really do need to think very similarly and start saying "Look, there's land that's too valuable to be used for anything but food production," Mr Brown said.

Mr Grocke is not so sure.

"The thought process is ideal but in reality it's a farce.

Some of the soils in this western Barossa zone aren't all class one and two soils of prime agricultural soils and some of them are absolutely poor," he said.

"Some of the best soils ...

exactly straight outside this zone [at] Roseworthy and Freeling are designated for huge housing/industrial expansion." Mr Rau stresses the need for a balance between urban growth and agricultural needs.

"It is true that there are some areas in the north of Adelaide which are closer to the city than the Barossa Valley which are presently being used for farming that are marked for housing development over the next 30 years.

That was a decision taken a while ago because if the city is to grow, it needs to have somewhere to grow," he said.

Back in the Barossa, Jan Angas says the legislation will help preserve one of the most significant food cultures in the country, but she stops short of calling her beloved Valley a major food bowl.

"We use food security very loosely and I think we have got to be careful about that because I do think the Barossa is positioning themselves in a premium level of food, so it's not about just having 25 million tonnes of any one item," she said.

Each week, high-end producers including Jan Angas sell their wares at the popular Barossa Farmers Market.

She suggests that with relatively-high land prices in the protected zone and limited space available, the more commodity-driven sector may do better if it switches focus too.

"Would you be better off looking at a niche market crop, like caperberries or horseradish or saffron or growing herbs or whatever," she asked.

"I'm not suggesting anything in particular, but it's time to have the discussion." Farmer Jeff Kernich is considering buying extra land outside the protected zone where it is cheaper and there are fewer restrictions, but the veteran dairy producer believes traditional agricultural pursuits can still prosper within the preserved area.

"I think that there's still a good future for those of us with the right attitude to still keep farming in this area.

It is generally, until years like this one, a very reliable area for growing hay and grain," he said.

So while the character preservation laws are cause for celebration for some in the wine regions, it remains clear there are disputes to resolve before all land users consider them a victory for agriculture.

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