The right to farm right

The Australian Farm Institute through its Research Advisory Committee has identified right to farm issues as a high priority for further research. The term ‘right to farm’ has been widely used to refer to the right of a farmer to utilise farm land for normal agricultural activities without being constrained by complaints or legal actions initiated by neighbours who object to the sights, noises and smells of normal farming operations.

In regions close to urban fringes, conflict between farmers carrying out normal farm operations and non-farm neighbours has become common and is a growing source of community disquiet. However, conflict over right to farm issues now extends well beyond peri-urban areas as growing regional centres and rural areas attract downsizers and tree changers.

Several high profile cases in Australia in recent years have put right to farm issues in the spotlight. Both the New South Wales and Victorian state governments either released policies or started inquiries into right to farm issues during 2015.

The right to farm also now has a new connotation, being the right to farm utilising the production systems and technologies of a farmer’s choosing. Land use classification defining where farming activities can take place has been the focus of right to farm legislation in the past. However, this is now becoming a broader issue as regulations defining what constitutes acceptable farming practices are impacting on the viability of farming operations. Farmers are not only facing controls on where they farm, but how they farm.

As an example of how right to farm regulations are evolving globally we can look to the Canadian province of Ontario where the Farming and Food Production Protection Act protects farmers from nuisance law suits if the practice they are carrying out is considered to be ‘normal’. Normal farm practices are determined by the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board which regularly reviews farm practices to ensure that current practice and new technology is recognised as normal practice.

In Australia however the regulations determining right to farm issues are much more piecemeal with no national approach or consistent framework at state or local government level. Tasmania is the only state that currently has right to farm laws. The Primary Industries Activities Protection Act 1995 was legislated in October 1995 and is designed to protect the right of farmers to conduct their farming activities. It was developed against a backdrop of increasing concern about new and existing legal threats to normal agricultural activities. Of particular concern was the clash of interests between agricultural operations and the expectations of lifestyle and non-farming property owners.

While these laws are on the books in Tasmania it appears that they have never actually been used and may be inappropriate for their intended purpose.

New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have all had right to farm legislation or changes to other acts relating to right to farm issues introduced or discussed in parliament however none have ever been passed into law. Western Australia had specific right to farm laws which were repealed in 2011 and Queensland has never had right to farm laws.

The NSW Government does have a policy on the right to farm which includes:

  • baseline data and monitoring of land use conflicts
  • increased certainty for those existing agricultural land uses
  • new regional plans to protect key farm areas
  • consultation with local councils to address conflict hotspots
  • planning focus on agricultural production
  • ongoing reviews of environment planning regulations
  • education campaign about primary production
  • a commitment to deliver new laws if necessary.

The Australian Farm Institute has recognised that a land use and planning framework that provides farmers with greater consistency in the face of constantly evolving public acceptance of where farming should occur and what constitutes acceptable farming practice would be highly desirable. This framework should be developed in response to an analysis of best practice in right to farm legislation from around the world. All 50 United States states have right to farm legislation enacted and most European countries and the United Kingdom (UK) have also addressed this issue through policies such as the green belt policy in the UK.

Image:  D Rankine