• Tony Bosworth

Chance of a reprieve for local Pick Your Own as Minister promises to listen to concerns of farmers

Updated: Jun 17

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 being floated dramatically limiting the number of visitors.

One major PYO operator in Bilpin has even threatened to rip up thousands of fruit trees and exit the business if the proposals go ahead in their current suggested form.

One of the mooted changes, which would see agri-tourism included in Local

Environment Plans (LEP) across the State, could see visitors to PYO limited to 50

people at a time on each property just 10 days a year, with a best case scenario of 32 guests each time each week, 52 times a year.

At Bilpin Fruit Bowl they currently see as many as 600 visitors a day, and that’s just one of the many PYO operations across our region.

There are also concerns the suggested rule changes could ultimately hit all farm-gate and farm-stay operations.

At a public meeting held at Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club this last week it was revealed there is no way of enforcing or policing the proposed reduced numbers at each farm gate anyway, amid claims those restricted numbers would decimate the business case for local PYO businesses - they would likely close their doors for good.

We covered the background to the story here in detail last week and that’s now been followed by the public meeting organised by Bells Line of Road Business Council at the Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club, where over 40 businesses heard about the proposed caps, and the likelihood – if changes go ahead - they would 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 at the meeting, with Hawkesbury State MP Preston suggesting it might be possible to lobby Minister Anthony Roberts for PYO operations to be exempt.

Some farmers we talked to after the meeting were also critical of Hawkesbury Council’s handling of the issue.

The Council business paper for April 2022 says staff did consult with “informal networks” about the proposed changes to PYO, pointed out Bilpin Fruit Bowl owner Margaret Tadrosse, but she said that was simply not good enough.

The proposed changes only became common knowledge just over two weeks ago when highlighted by Hawkesbury Harvest Trails and Markets.

Ms Tadrosse told the Post,

“Bilpin Land of the Mountain Apple has been a trailblazing district for agri-tourism, and The Fruit Bowl is a landmark business and council couldn’t pick up the phone or send us an email to consult about these changes? It’s outrageous.”

“These proposed changes, if they go ahead will wipe out orcharding in Bilpin, as almost all rely on PYO to remain financially viable," Ms Tadrosse said.

“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 Hawkesbury Harvest Trails and Markets, an umbrella organisation for the local agri-tourism industry.

“Our State Member [Robyn Preston] said [at the public meeting] she wanted pick your own farms to be removed entirely from these proposed rules,” says Ms Maguire.

Ms Preston also said she would organise a face-to-face meeting for Hawkesbury Harvest with the Minister for Planning next week when parliament returned, Ms Maguire told the Post.

“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 us she thought the public meeting had been 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 widely known as a 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.

And Lionel Buckett of Wollemi Cabins in Berambing said he didn’t believe simply excluding PYO from the draft legislation would solve the problem, “as anything not prescribed in an LEP is an illegal activity,” he said.

"A viable option is to include PYO in the definition of Extensive Agriculture in the LEP,” said Mr Buckett.

“Extensive Agriculture is development permitted without consent and so doesn’t require a DA. This would legalise PYO practices on farms and not require anyone to have to lodge a DA because they use tourists to pick their crops," he said.

"Any issues relating to traffic or pedestrian control, parking, rubbish disposal and public toilets are already regulated by Council and NSW State Government and do not require any legislative changes to enable action to be taken if required.”

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