IAN KIRKWOOD: Homes replacing farms

Monday’s reports by Newcastle Herald journalist Damon Cronshaw on the future of the Lower Hunter’s agricultural land reminded me of the changes I have seen over the years in western Sydney.

As a child growing up near Parramatta, my parents would often drive west to semi-rural Kellyville and Windsor, or north-west up New Line Road and Old Northern Road through Kenthurst and Dural, buying farm fresh fruit, eggs and vegies from honesty boxes or roadside stalls.

I remember my father, who spent much of his childhood on farms, saying it would all be gone for housing one day, and he was right.

Drive up the Windsor Road today and it is kilometre after kilometre of McMansions, the view enlivened only by the occasional cookie-cutter bulky goods shopping centre.

Online aerial photographs show the dense urbanisation clustered either side of the main roads, with pockets of green still plentiful in between.

But look more closely and it is evident that most of the green blocks are rural-residential, or hobby farms at best, and that the agricultural power of an area that once boasted of being Sydney’s bread-basket is all but gone.

It might not be pretty, but it’s progress, and Sydney’s experience tells me there’s not a whole lot we can do about it in the Hunter.

As much as the NSW Farmers Association might believe “the value of fresh produce from local farms” should lead governments to give farmland precedence over urban expansion, the modest revenues from our agricultural sector show that is unlikely to happen.

All up, the Hunter’s annual agricultural output is worth about $330million, with two thirds coming from cattle and poultry. Of the three dozen categories of primary produce listed, half returned $800,000 or less a year, with 10 products generating $200,000 or less.

Against these relatively meagre returns, the value of Hunter housing – like housing around the urbanised areas of our nation – is again rising rapidly, driven by the particular mixture of circumstances that have led Australia to have some of the most expensive house prices on the planet.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in unadjusted terms, the value of houses in Australia’s eight capital cities have all more or less doubled in the past 10 years.

At the same time, the seemingly inexorable squeeze of Australia’s retailing duopoly means food is costing consumers less and less, which means, logically, that less and less is available to the producer, even if the retailers argue they are gaining most of their price savings by squeezing the middle of the supply chain.

The ABS helps here again, showing that food and non-alcoholic beverage prices are steady or falling, and are in clear contrast with nation-wide housing prices, which have had an uninterrupted run of rises since 1998 – including the period during the global financial crisis – with a present rate of increase of about 5 per cent a year.

Despite the preference by planning departments for medium-density housing and high-rise apartments, the reality is that most of us enjoy living in freestanding houses on blocks big enough for a child or two to run around in.

As Phillip O’Neill pointed out in his column om Monday, the state government expects the lower Hunter to house an extra 130,000 people by 2031, a big increase on the 550,000 or so now living in Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Cessnock, Maitland and Port Stephens.

If the past is any guide, much of the new housing land will be former farming estates, sold by farmers determined to balance the years of meagre returns with a decent payout.

As for the Upper Hunter, it, too, is facing a squeeze on its farming land, even if the state government remains resolutely optimistic that farming and coalmining can co-exist.

As Greg Ray, who is on holidays from this space for a fortnight, might say, “good luck with that one’’.

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