A STRATHALBYN farmer is working to help protect some of the nation's most productive farmland for future generations, against the threat of urban sprawl.
James Stacey received a Nuffield scholarship, with support from Primary Producers SA, in 2018 to research ways different countries are dealing with this issue.
He said the idea for the report first came to him as he was driving through Mount Barker.
"They'd just had 1300 hectares of land rezoned for housing and a lot of that was very productive horticultural land," he said. "I was fairly frustrated with that."
He said the same issue was being repeated on the edge of several major cities, including horticultural areas north of Adelaide and the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne.
"About half of Melbourne's horticulture production is on the outskirts of Melbourne," he said.
"But based on current growth rates, by 2050, only 18 per cent will still be there."
James said he was initially looking at ways for producers on these prime areas to maximise profits.
But he said many were already very profitable, with a good customer and labour base so close by.
"Planning issues were the biggest issue," he said.
"Once even a highly-profitable farm is re-zoned, the land values rise and rates go up until they're forced to sell land."
He found some good examples of ways to tackle this in his travels.
In Oregon, United States, if land for housing is required, the University of Oregon will look at the least valuable land for agriculture and use that instead.
In the Netherlands, farmers are given 15 years warning if their farms will be needed for housing and are compensated directly, rather than developers getting the benefits of the increased land value.
There were also some more extreme examples.
He said China has a goal to retain 85pc of its productive agricultural land with rural villages sometimes relocated into high-rise buildings for a smaller footprint.
In British Columbia, a policy since 1976 means the population has been able to grow, although with a population density of 4500 people per square kilometre, compared to the density in Sydney and Melbourne that is more like 800 people/sqkm.
"We can still grow the population and keep agricultural land," he said.
He said the SA government had also introduced legislation in 2017, which would help protect key areas such as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.
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James said there were also other regions not doing this well, such as Idaho, US, which is one of the world's biggest seed producers for carrots and potatoes.
He said the Meridian region had grown its population from 10,000 to 100,000 in 15 years, mostly at the expense of prime land.
He said while there had been pushback in Australia to higher density populations, the population was also changing.
"A lot of people migrating to Australia are from countries that have higher density urban living, so the argument that all Australians want a quarter-acre block and big backyard is not accurate anymore," he said.
He said in New Zealand, many food producers moved to the South Island away from an expanding Auckland and found they did not have enough staff.
"Intensive agriculture needs people, if you move too far from people, it doesn't work," he said.
James said this was an important issue and governments needed to start addressing this as they planned for future population growth.
He says the coronavirus pandemic shows how important to food security it is to have food produced close to urban areas.
"If we push ag too far away from where people live, we can't get suitable staff to harvest crops and bring them to market," he said.
Travelling the world has helped James to refine and grow his business.
As part of his trip, he visited several countries, including the Netherlands, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand, Canada and China, gaining insight into a number of different operations.
While his research was based on assessing strategies for managing urban sprawl and agriculture, he said there was also chances to learn from a wide range of operations.
"it might not be the topic you study that you get the most out of," he said.
"It is a brilliant opportunity to look around the world and spend time out of your business
"You see some businesses, and even if they're not in your field, you can take something away from them.
"The opportunity to see the world, and the people you meet, is amazing."
Making the most of their proximity to the Adelaide Hills, and other peri-urban areas, James and his wife Rachael, and children Zac, Ashton and Tiana, have refocused their business on producing lucerne and small bale hay for the horse market.
James said this had doubled in size in the past 12 months and he expects it to grow at least that again in the next 12 months.
"We've focused more on the opportunities available to us," he said.
- Details: The 2021 Nuffield Scholarship program is on hold but will open in September. Visit nuffield.com.au
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