Thursday, March 20, 2014

Cattle and Cane

What has this Go Betweens song from the 1980s got to do with proposed changes to the south east Queensland regional plan? Surprisingly, there are some common themes…

In the early 1980s, when Go Betweens songwriter Grant McLennan penned ‘Cattle and Cane’, south east Queensland had a population of around 1.5 million. Today it’s around 3 million and predictions are that this figure will rise to 4.5 million by 2030. Much about the south east – one of Australia’s fastest growing conurbations – has changed in that time, most of it for the better in my view; some of it for worse.

But it’s some of what’s also been protected from change that is somewhat ironic. I’m referring to fields of sugarcane or expanses of cattle grazing land, which remain under a number of planning controls, protected from urban development. These are some of the landscapes McLennan referred to in his song, drawn from memories of the family farm in north Queensland:

“I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber”

A resident of south east Queensland when he wrote these words, McLennan would have seen considerable expanses of active sugar cane farms and cattle properties surrounding what was then the urban fringe but what we now know as established suburbs. A drive to the north or south coasts from Brisbane passed through these farmlands, many of which have since given way to housing and non-residential uses demanded by the rising population that now lives here. We need houses to live in, schools for our children, shopping centres, entertainment venues, roads, parks, hospitals, civic buildings and more. It all requires land.

In response to this growth, regulators sought to contain ‘sprawl’ and protect environmental and other features of the region while pushing higher densities of development into existing areas. This became a central plank of what ultimately became the ‘South East Queensland Regional Plan.’  In common with other metropolitan wide plans of the time, it introduced an ‘urban growth boundary’ beyond which future urban growth was virtually prohibited. And even within that boundary, some land uses were protected from development – rural land uses included.

This in many ways is a fine political sentiment for the middle classes of the inner city to ruminate on. The idea of protecting farmlands from urban sprawl hits a nerve with a community who no longer care where their milk comes from, or that buying it for a dollar a litre (less than they happily pay for water or petrol) is sending dairy farmers broke. The hypocrisy of expressing concern for the retention of farming lands while adopting consumer behaviour which renders these enterprises uneconomic is a topic for another day.

Protecting farmlands (as opposed to protecting farmers) needs to be about much more than protecting the view corridors enjoyed by residents en route to their coastal holiday locations, or appeasing the interests of planners who want to see swathes of green open space on their regional plans. If the enterprises are no longer economic, arguing for their preservation is forcing a form of poverty onto farming families that can in many cases only be relieved by the ability to sell the land for a higher and better use. And that use would be housing, which the regional plan prevents them from doing.

Take sugar cane for example. North and central Queensland have large and viable sugar industries (though some farmers in these areas would argue even that’s debateable). They still have operating sugar mills to process the raw cane for domestic or export consumption. But the sugar industry in the south east corner isn’t really viable any longer. Burning cane (described in the song as “and in the sky, a rain of falling cinders”) would no longer be tolerated in a heavily populated south east. Green harvesting is now the go. But the sugar mills long ago closed down, with the sole exception of Rocky Point near Pimpama. A mill at Eagleby closed in 1943 and the Nambour mill closed in 2004. Basically, better conditions for growing sugar cane are found in northern climates and the economic realities of life have a way of taking over. It’s probably why the sugar cane fields found in the 1860s around the Brisbane suburbs of Chelmer, Corinda or Bulimba long ago surrendered to the obvious.

But under our current planning scheme, fields of cane are a protected feature of the landscape. The cane grown on the fields near the Sunshine Coast must be transported to Maryborough for milling. Hardly economic but what choice is there? Are there environmental grounds to support their retention? Perhaps driving past cane fields in your BMW at 100kph gives an illusion of ‘green space’ but in reality, canefields have next to no ecological value. They are full of the appropriately named cane toads (a noxious pest), rats, and snakes and not much else. A hectare of land given to housing would support more native plant and wildlife in people’s backyards than a hectare of cane land.

Cattle country isn’t much different. Much of the grazing land around the outer edge of the urban growth boundary is marginal, at best. Soil types can be sandy or rocky (and not hold moisture) and irrigation isn’t feasible for most given limited underground water supplies and the lack of flowing fresh water rivers. Currently, much of this country is in drought. Take a weekend drive anywhere from Jimboomba through Undullah to Peak Crossing, Laidley, Esk, Toogoolawah or Kilcoy and have a look. Sure this is a seasonal problem and this isn’t a good season, but the country itself – with some exceptions - isn’t the best for grazing. New techniques in raising beef, including the advent of feedlots, new or improved pasture seed types and changes in farming practices mean that in good country with dependable rainfalls and good soil types, more cattle can be raised on less land, faster, than ever before.

Queensland and the NT’s cattle herd is over 15 milllion head, compared with less than 12 million in the mid-1990s. So we are not going to run out of cattle for meat. The question is: do we need to insist on raising it on our urban fringe by withdrawing permission for owners to put that land to alternative uses?

Persisting with the retention of cattle properties on the edge of the urban fringe, only in order to suit some inner urban sensitivities about the loss of nearby farming land, is an unreasonable imposition on those farmers and illogical at best. Plenty of farmers would persist in being illogical and continue to run cattle despite what nature and the economy is telling them even if alternate uses were permitted: but there’s a difference when it’s their decision to do so, or a mandate imposed on them by others.

The same applies for sugar. The same actually applies across a range of land uses where privately owned land is prevented from adopting a higher or better use simply because a planning scheme says so, in defiance of economic logic or even common sense. If the community are so fervently attached to the idea that other peoples’ private land must be retained for these particular purposes, then perhaps the community should buy them out? At the very least, it ought to be the landowners right to seek economic uses for their land, especially if the pre-existing use is no longer economically feasible.

Cattle and Cane may have been a feature of south east Queensland life even as recently as the 1980s when the population was 1.5 million. But to persist with these practices out of nostalgia or to appease shallow and ill-informed community opinion will make little sense in the Brisbane of the 2030s - when the population reaches 4.5 million.

“from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older”….

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