Protecting Agricultural Land: Policies and Practices in South Australian Rural Planning

Local communities recognize that farmland is a finite resource and have sought ways to protect it. Regulatory tools ranging from agricultural protection zoning to purchase of development rights have been used with varying degrees of success.

Agricultural protection zoning ordinances prohibit non-farming development on prime agricultural soil and may include subdivision limitations, land-use conflict resolution provisions, and site design requirements such as buffers and setbacks.

Land Management

Managing soil erosion, soil salinisation and declining land quality has been one of the major issues for the South Australian farming community. The state’s soil erosion problems were exacerbated by the initial European settlers who used grazing and cultivation practices ill-suited to the climate and soils of South Australia (Meinig 1962).

The resulting high levels of soil loss and low productivity caused farmers financial difficulties with the decline in wheat and wool prices, rising interest rates and recurring droughts. By the end of the century, this combination of economic and environmental pressures had led to an increase in the number of small specialized agricultural producers. These specialised producers focused on producing products for local consumption, such as wines or native species, rather than for export (Roche and Argent 2015).

Many of these new agricultural production systems require intensive land use management with the need to maintain soil health and productive capacity. Consequently, there has been an increased focus on ‘land management’ as a central element of farm business planning (Hughes 2006).

Interviewees in the Mid North region emphasized that the efficient use of water is a key concern for sustainable agriculture. They identified moisture conservation as particularly important during the summer and noted that it was a key factor in paddock resilience. They also described how they managed to use irrigation more efficiently through the use of troughs, gully dams and ring tanks.

In the Mid North, there is a high adoption of the no-till cropping method. This less invasive technique has the potential to reduce soil erosion and improve soil retention and water management. Interviewees also identified the increasing use of alternative feed sources, such as lupins and brassicas.

The Mid North has a relatively low level of protected areas compared to other South Australian regions. This is likely due to the fact that most of the region’s landscape is devoted to agricultural production. The exceptions are the Mount Remarkable national park south of Wilmington in the pastoral district and the regional parks along the Clare Valley, which are located within the main ag-tourism markets.

Planning for Agriculture

As its name suggests, planning for the countryside, or town and country planning as it has been known for over a century, aims to promote agricultural sustainability and rural multifunctionality. However, the field has yet to be properly reflected within statutory planning practice in South Australia.

This article explores the potential for a landscape approach to agricultural and rural development, with a focus on the Mid North region of South Australia. It utilises an analytical framework combining a socio-spatial typology of agrarian territories or’modes of occupance’ (Holmes 2002, 2006) with a categorisation of the four ‘fields of action’ in agricultural sustainability practices (Weltin et al. 2018).

The analysis demonstrates that a range of factors are pushing the farming community towards a multifunctional transition. These include declining commodity prices for staples such as wheat and wool, increasing tourism markets, and lifestyle migration. Other drivers include climate-related hazards such as droughts, floods and bushfires, and a desire to promote regional cuisine and wine production. The emergence of these new farming activities is putting pressure on existing farm businesses, resulting in increased debt levels and reducing the size of the agricultural workforce.

Despite these changes, farmers are still committed to the environmental stewardship of their land. Consequently, many have taken up Landcare initiatives to reduce the impacts of their farming operations on the environment and to increase the amount of land under conservation management. However, these initiatives are mostly undertaken at the individual farm level and are not scaling up to the regional scale, thus limiting their ecological benefits.

In the face of these challenges, the State government has a role to play in supporting the agricultural sector. One key policy tool is the establishment of a series of environmental land protection areas (EFPAs). These are defined as ‘land of strategic importance to the State’s agriculture, biodiversity, and natural environment’ (Government of South Australia 2020). The EFPAs can be declared by the Minister by notice published in the Gazette and on the SA Planning Portal. The Minister may vary or revoke the declaration by a further notice published in the same way.

Protection of Agricultural Land

The protection of agricultural land is a key goal in the State’s planning system. This is partly because agriculture is the primary global land use and its sustainable operation requires halting land degradation to protect biodiversity (Walsh et al. 2016).

Across the world, many farmers face pressure to produce environmental outcomes and conserve natural vegetation. In South Australia, conservation policies rely on incentives, legislation, research, consultation and the removal of policy barriers that hinder biodiversity conservation efforts (Diaz et al. 2019).

However, the prevailing capitalist socio-economic system and anthropocentric world view of farmers and the majority of rural community members has resulted in detrimental social, economic and environmental impacts (Evans and Foley 2014).

The onset of European farming practices over large areas of the Mid North region accelerated the decline of native vegetation as grazing and cropping intensified. The erosion problems associated with these intensive land management practices were not fully understood and exacerbated by climatic variation. The resulting widespread soil erosion is an ongoing concern and a significant impediment to the profitability of land-use and the preservation of wildlife habitat.

A number of programs have been developed to address erosion issues. For example, the Land Condition Monitoring Program has used a combination of data collection methods including field surveys, satellite imagery and surveying of land manager knowledge, attitudes and practices. This information has enabled long term mapping and modelling of the extent of erosion on agricultural lands.

More recently, the Government has adopted a ‘carbon farming’ policy to increase the quantity of carbon stored in soil and vegetation through better land management. This will help build a strong climate ready economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support adaptation to a changing climate.

A rethink of agriculture policy is also underway to promote the sustainability of agricultural operations. This includes moving towards more organic fertilisers and avoiding the overuse of chemicals. It also involves reducing the intensity of tillage and promoting pasture-based farming systems to maintain soil health, productivity and biodiversity.

A new paradigm of ‘landscape approach’ to agricultural sustainability and rural multifunctionality is emerging from regional development agencies across Australia. For instance, the Regulatory Authority of Northern and Yorke (RANY) has emphasised organisational improvements to foster experimentation and learning amongst farmers regarding new technology and plant varieties. It has also facilitated the formation of regional and state-wide networks to facilitate sharing of resources, advice and knowledge.

Policy Issues

As the South Australian land use transition continues to progress, several policy developments are affecting agricultural landscapes and the way in which people are engaged with them. One major change is the introduction of genetically modified crops. Although the introduction of these crops is not yet complete, it will have a significant impact on future changes in the State’s agricultural and natural biodiversity.

Another policy issue is the need to address climate change impacts on agricultural land and agricultural production. The State’s agricultural sectors will be affected by the effects of climate change in a number of ways including increased temperatures, sea level rise, changing rainfall patterns and drought conditions. The agricultural sector will also be affected by changing water supply, changing soil quality, and increasing salinity in some areas.

The State Government has responded to these issues by developing a suite of initiatives. Some of these are specifically targeted at improving agriculture’s ability to adapt to climate change, while others are more general in nature. These include the Climate Ready program, which has a particular focus on building resilience in farming communities, and the Rural Adaptation fund, which provides grants to support farmers in their efforts to adopt new technologies, practices and management systems.

In addition, the State Government has taken steps to improve land management through the Soil Conservation Act 1939 and the subsequent 1989 Soil Conservation and Land Care Act. This legislation sought to utilise an educative rather than a regulatory approach to improve land management in farming communities by encouraging community driven promotion, education and adoption of best practices. A key aspect of this was the establishment of a network of Soil Conservation Boards across the State.

Other State policy initiatives include the development of a land capability map that seeks to address issues such as salinisation, water repellence and decreased soil fertility. This map is based on a modeled pastoral capability dataset which combines data from different jurisdictions to fill gaps in data. It is available as a geotiff file from the Department of Environment and Water Resources (South Australia). The Department is also working with local communities to assist them in managing their land for sustainable agricultural production.