Managing farm land use conflicts

Katie McRobert, AFI General Manager

While land use conflict is an issue that is not specific to agriculture, it’s one with impacts that are particularly felt in the farming community. Farmers can suffer significant economic impacts from land use conflict, such as loss of productive land to buffers, implementation of remediation measures to mitigate neighbourhood tension, and legal and consultancy costs in defence of complaints. 

However, AFI’s research on managing farm-related land use conflicts in NSW (1) shows the most severe impacts on farmers from these disputes are non-financial. In key informant interviews conducted for the study, mental health, social and physical amenity, industry decline and erosion of trust emerged as the primary impacts of land use conflict on NSW farmers. 

This project comprised of a desktop literature review and in-person regional case studies. The review provided analysis of land use conflict management, right to farm legislation and various tools and programs utilised both internationally and domestically. 

Geographic areas of particular interest for the review were the Delmarva region in the US (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), the province of Ontario in Canada, and the UK green belts. Delmarva farming communities have been subject to a large amount of regulation dealing with urban encroachment as well as legislation targeted at addressing issues causing pollution in Chesapeake Bay. Ontario has instituted a Normal Farm Practices Protection Board (2) to resolve disputes regarding agricultural operations and act as arbiter of acceptable practice. In the UK, a green belt policy prioritises land for agriculture, forestry and outdoor leisure activities; however, critics claim the policy has contributed to housing unaffordability and has had negligible environmental benefits.

Within this frame of reference, on-the-ground research was then conducted in four NSW regions to better understand the nature of land use conflicts and the extent of actual and potential impact in the context of agricultural production. The four regions were selected based on their differing agro-ecological zones, the spread of primary commodities produced and differing socioeconomic and political environments: Greater Sydney (Camden, Wollondilly and Hawkesbury); North Coast (Coffs Harbour and Grafton); Greater Hume (Albury, Culcairn and Jindera); and North West (Tamworth, Narrabri and Gunnedah). 

The rapid – and often unsympathetic – expansion of development in the peri-urban landscapes of Greater Sydney has resulted in a rise in farm-related nuisance complaints and an exit of farming businesses. Some remaining farmers feel stranded in terms of access to transport and water and constrained from developing their business by expanding residential buffer zones.

The Greater Hume region has seen an influx of state-significant development (SSD) applications for solar projects, with residents and primary producers concerned about amenity, loss of agricultural production, potential environmental impacts and impacts on public liability insurance costs. Many residents reported that the SSD planning process failed to address the community’s concerns. Conflicts between farmers and council have also occurred in the area due to the subjective interpretation of some definitions in planning policies, such as ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’ or whether structures are considered temporary or permanent. 

In addition to the usual peri-urban nuisance cases, direct competition in the North West for essential resources such as land and water between extracting companies and agriculture exacerbates the levels of conflict apparent in the region. Many farmers in the area are concerned about the implications of mining on their health, the environment, the community’s social fabric and their future ability to farm profitably and sustainably. 

Intensive plant agriculture (IPA), particularly berry production, has significantly increased in the Coffs Harbour region over the past decade. Coffs Harbour City Council receives a variety of complaints regarding IPA, including clearing of vegetation for farm establishment, mismanagement of water, health and environmental impacts of spray drift, visual amenity from netting and a lack of buffer zones to residential dwellings and waterways. Cultural differences between sectors of the community and many of the growers in the region are also fuelling the conflict.

Although the types and sources of conflict in the case study regions were diverse, several commonalities were apparent and contributing factors to conflict were grouped into key themes: communication, education, compliance resourcing and planning

While some regional initiatives have made inroads in preventing or mitigating land use conflict, and policy has been discussed at length in recent years, the state lacks a cohesive overarching approach to consistently avoid or resolve issues. Some of the successful global programs examined in the literature review, such as the Ontario Farm Practices Conflict Resolution Process (which resolved 97% of the complaints it received in 2016–17), were canvassed along with other relevant options with interviewees. 

Through these processes, several recommendations for both proactive and reactive responses emerged. The interdependencies of land use conflict indicate the need for a combination of policy options and broader strategic initiatives to be utilised, both to minimise the risk of conflict occurring and to enable the best possible outcome for stakeholders when issues do arise. 

In terms of policy, a key conclusion from the research is the need for the acceptance and defence of state-wide protected agricultural practices by government, agencies and industry. Many conflicts are fostered by miscommunication or misunderstanding of what constitutes a ‘normal’ farm practice. This set of acceptable practices must be informed by societal expectations, such as those defined in the Tasmanian ‘good neighbour’ charter. (3) As noted in a recent Farm Policy Journal, simply complying with regulations does not ensure the right to farm; (4) rather a combination of compliance and shared values will build the trust necessary to underpin farmers’ social licence (5) and avoid land use conflict.

A strong need also exists for the strategic protection of critical agricultural assets to be provided by all levels of government. Strategy to promote and protect agriculture as the primary industry (in regions where this is warranted) is lacking, and co-existence of agriculture with competing land users is often highly problematic.

In addition, education and awareness of normal farm practice clearly is need of improvement. It is notable that much of the information currently available is delivered in a manner inconsistent with how intended audiences engage with content, for example as letterbox drops, brochures or handouts with property contracts rather than face-to-face or via social media. When conflict does occur, adoption of consistent engagement strategies (by the NSW DPI, Department of Planning, Local Land Services and NSW Farmers) can redress most impacts. Specific recommendations on these strategies will be included in the final report.

The complexity of land use conflict issues in NSW agriculture is difficult to overstate. However, at a time when agriculture is under increasing pressure from a changing climate there is no doubting the need for both proactive and reactive responses to manage the disruptive uncertainty created by conflict, which ultimately threatens the right to farm.


1. This project was commissioned by NSW DPI and is due for completion by 1 March 2020.

2. NFPPB (2017), Annual Report of the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board, 1 April 2016 – 31 March 2017 [Annual Report], http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/engineer/nfppb/annual-report2016-2017.htm#4

3. DPIPWE (2016), Good Neighbour Charter, Tasmanian Government, https://dpipwe.tas.gov.au/about-the-department/good-neighbour-charter

4. Dumbrell, N (2018), To what extent should society determine the right to farm?, Farm Policy Journal, vol. 15, no. 4, Australian Farm Institute.

5. Lush, D (2018), The right to farm versus the right to choose: society is having the final say, Farm Policy Journal, vol. 15, no. 4, Australian Farm Institute.


Image:  Katie McRobert