Farmers threaten to “rip up trees” if proposed new government regulations for agri-tourism go ahead
This afternoon Hawkesbury Pick Your Own operators, state and federal MPs, agri-tourism businesses, café owners and farm stay operators, among others, will meet at Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club to decide on action over new NSW government proposals some fear may be the end of hugely popular PYO operations and other tourist businesses.
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 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.
“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.
Some farmers are threatening to rip up fruit trees if the rules change...
“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 agri-tourism businesses have been operating in what one official told the Post was “a planning rule desert for the last 20 to 30 years”.
One example of why the issue has come up is the World Polo Championship run in 2017 on the Richmond Lowlands was an event which did not have Development Application approval. When Hawkesbury Council carried out an audit of local businesses carrying out PYO, or cellar door, or other agri-tourism businesses, it was found some 95% didn’t have a DA for their operations.
That situation is repeated across NSW.
The problem is, if every agri-tourism operator had to get a DA, it would firstly be expensive and time-consuming, and currently there simply are no specific regulations around many of the types of operations – Hawkesbury Council simply don’t have guidelines.
Another issue with the proposed new regulations has been the perceived lack of public consultation in the Hawkesbury, which many have put down to the fact the rule changes were first flagged back in March 2021 during the floods when as one agri-tourism operator put it to the Post, “we were all drowning, some almost literally, and there was no time to focus on this”.
“In effect, these rules will limit farms that don’t have an existing DA that explicitly permits PYO to just 50 people on a farm 10 days a year regardless of the farm’s size and services,” says Angela Maguire who is President of the Hawkesbury Harvest Trails and Markets umbrella organisation.
“This will apply to many of the farms many consumers and tourists currently enjoy and will make them unviable as businesses,” she says.
A petition against the proposed changes put up by Bilpin Fruit Bowl’s Mrs Tadrosse had 21,000 signatures on it by this morning.
“We really appreciate the community support,” says Hawkesbury Harvests’ Ms Maguire.
“We also support sensible regulations that keep everyone safe and businesses viable and we’re not adverse to setting guidelines that achieve that goal but these guidelines won’t achieve that outcome. It’s been a really poor process.
“The proposed changes have serious consequences for the economic viability of our farms, State and local government tourism, and destination management plans, and local economic recovery for fire and flood affected communities,” Ms Maguire said.
Making money and earning a living as a farmer has certainly changed dramatically over the past few decades, with many switching from freighting their products to Flemington market or selling to the big retailers like Coles and Woolworths, and instead bringing people on to their properties and giving them an experience, whether that be pick your own or staying on the property, or cider sheds, even patting alpacas.
Planned regulations could even end up affecting the numbers able to pat alpacas...
But regulations have not kept up with the boom in agri-tourism and that’s at the root of the proposed changes.
Another reason for the mooted changes is the large influx of people into areas like Bilpin, on the weekends in particular. The State government believes there are potential safety issues, due to the sheer numbers, hence their desire to put some rules around this.
Although no-one local will speak on the record about that issue for fear of splitting the community, here at the Post we have heard from several locals – some in Bilpin - who feel there are simply too many people arriving every weekend.
One resident who did not want to be named said, “these businesses were, and still are, completely unregulated and have been given free rein. They are completely left out of the NSW and Council LEPs [Local Environment Plan]. NSW Planning is playing catch up.”
The State government is acutely aware of the backlash from the agri-tourism industry and we’re told the issue to likely to be put on the back-burner while the bureaucrats work out a better path.
Hawkesbury MP Robyn Preston, who will be at this afternoon’s public meeting, said this morning, “Pick Your Own is a vital source of income for farmers in Hawkesbury and throughout NSW, so when local farmers contacted me about proposed changes to the rules for agri-tourism and small-scale agriculture development, I understood the anxiety they were experiencing and the potential impact these amendments could have on their businesses.
“The rules are not yet finalised and community feedback is currently being looked at by the department, but I wasn’t waiting a minute longer, so I met with the Minister for Planning, Anthony Roberts, to highlight the problems farmers will face if this goes ahead.
“Minister Roberts has assured me that community concerns surrounding Pick Your Own farms are being considered and the department is looking at solutions that will best cater for our community in Bilpin and beyond.”
The public meeting this afternoon – Friday – is at Kurrajong Heights Bowling Club from 4pm.
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