PORK producer Edwina Beveridge is frustrated at what she feels is escalating bullying by animal rights activists that she says has caused bureaucratic inertia that’s threatened to undermine positive economic development in her local agricultural district.
She believes her story is also a cautionary tale for others to follow when submitting applications to local councils, to try and build new intensive farming facilities.
About 20 months ago, Ms Beveridge first made an application to what was then the Harden Council to develop two sites on her husband’s long-held family farming property, “Eulie”, to build shed facilities to house about 25,000 pigs.
She believes the project would help generate about 20 jobs in the local community and spread positive economic activity to other businesses including buying grain for pig feed off other farmers.
But the proposed intensive piggery development was recently knocked back following rulings by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPO) and the state’s Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH). The application attracted unprecedented attention on social media via a subversive anti-farming campaign.
Ms Beveridge is now considering spending up to $500,000 to fight another legal challenge after the application failed to win general terms of approval by the EPA and OEH, which meant the Hilltops Council - which resulted from a merger of the Boorowa, Harden and Young local government areas last year - had to knock back the piggery development.
“We can take the matter to the NSW Land and Environment Court,” she said.
“That could cost us about half a million dollars and probably take at least another 12 months, so we’re weighing up our options.”
But Ms Beveridge’s application process was always going to stir deep emotions and ideological opposition, given her family’s long-running history of standing up to public and private harassment by animal rights activists.
That includes the shock of discovering hidden cameras at her other piggery Blantyre Farms, at nearby Young in 2013, which were used to capture video footage published online to promote the activists’ cause of seeking to end intensive farming industries.
She’s also applied for apprehended violence orders against individuals connected to such campaigns, including against the former Animal Liberation NSW executive director, Animal Justice Party NSW MLC Mark Pearson.
1000 objections raised to piggery application
Mrs Beveridge believes she’s been unfairly targeted by animal rights groups during the Harden piggery application process, given a public exhibit of her proposed plan attracted 1000 objections, due to the social media campaign.
One of the Facebook sites set-up to oppose her application, “Say No To Blantyre Farms In Harden”, has 1400 followers and uses extensive images of alleged cruelty to pigs, including ones purportedly taken from the Beveridge’s farms.
But Ms Beveridge said two other pig farms have been approved by the EPA and their councils respectively in the past two years and had received no such attention.
“I don’t quite know why we’ve been singled out, but certainly the animal rights activists don’t like us and there’s a history between us,” she said.
“Animal rights activists have broken into our farm at least 10 times and taken lots of video footage that they’ve used against us and I’ve also applied to take out AVOs against some of them.
“All of that hasn’t helped our cause, with this planning application.”
Ms Beveridge said “the game changed” when information about her piggery application was put to council and then publicly exhibited, which saw 1000 objections received.
“The EPA and council had told me verbally the information we provided was okay, but once they received 1000 objections, everything changed,” she said.
“I think we’ve been treated like a state significant development which is meant to be when you spend more than $30 million on a development, but we are nowhere near that size.
“We have been treated differently because there’s so much controversy about the application.
“It’s always in the newspapers and 1000 objections are far more than the council would ever see which has made everyone nervous.”
People opposed to meat eating and living in New York can oppose a NSW piggery
Ms Beveridge said she’d not seen any specific details of the objections raised during the application process, but she wanted to know how many of them came from her local community “because I’d think it’d be very few”.
She said she believed the bulk of the objections to her proposed piggery came from animal activists based throughout the world.
“You don’t have to live in NSW or Harden to raise an objection to our pig farm,” she said.
“You can be opposed to eating meat and live in New York and can still raise an objection to our pig farm.
“Most of the people who are opposed to it are opposed to us growing animals, full stop.
“They are opposed to people eating meat and don’t like any farming, but they like intensive farming the least.”
One post on the anti-Blantyre farms page said animal factory farming was a global issue. This was in response to those who believe people outside a particular region were not entitled to voice their opinion and concern.
“The sooner law makers, decision makers and 'old school' and out of touch councillors 'get' the reality and the facts, the better off our world will be,” it said.
“This is our world and it is high time the 'people' came first - before greedy and cruel operators and their self-serving industries.”
Ms Beveridge said the entire bureaucratic process had been “extremely frustrating”, but she’s not giving up on her family’s proposed pig farm.
“We’re still working on this and we’re keen to get ahead and start growing our business and the town of Harden, but we’re struggling to do that,” she said.
“Harden is a sleepy little town that could do with 20 new jobs.
“There are many locals who are supportive of the development and want it to go ahead and a small minority in my view opposing it, who are very vocal.
“I’d like someone in the government to wake up and say ‘what the hell’ how can we help make this happen?
“I’ve tried making contact with some politicians in NSW, but it just seems to go nowhere.”
Cultural and environmental sensitivities
Neighbouring farmers have opposed the piggery planning application believing their properties may be at risk of pollution threats, given potential run-off from the spread of pig manure across paddocks, on the proposed site.
The OEH knocked back the development because they were worried about the pig farm spreading manure on paddocks and potentially killing trees, which may have aboriginal or ecological significance, Ms Beveridge said.
But she said that state government decision was “really unfair” because most farmers in the district already spread fertiliser on their paddocks.
“What we’re proposing to do is no different; except we’re using pig manure instead of synthetic fertiliser,” she said.
“Also, the OEH says there may be aboriginal artefacts on our farm - and we have found some at the piggery sites which we’ve dealt with - where we plan to spread pig manure and if they do exist, we may dislodge them.
“But spreading pig manure is far less invasive than planting a crop and if they applied this same rationale to all farming in NSW, it would have the ability to stop all cropping.
“This is the first time anyone we’ve been in contact with has heard of this happening and I think farmers generally should be very worried.”
Ms Beveridge said animal rights activists can make a big difference to proposed developments like hers through social media campaigns.
But she said local governments needed to understand the difference between genuine concerns and local interests, especially agricultural nuances, and blanket ideological opposition to farming proposed by activists.
“I would think a lot of developers would be looking on and considering NSW a bad place to invest in, for developing an intensive farm,” she said.
“I’ve been contacted by 11 other shires asking me to come to their area, but yet the one that we live in doesn’t seem to want us or has done very little to help us.
“I honestly think if I came to them and said ‘I’m thinking about this proposed piggery’, and tried to get them to entice me in, it may have worked out better.”
Ms Beveridge said a loophole in the NSW laws had also added another complicated layer, to her family’s piggery application process on top of the local council merger and staffing changes.
She said after submitting the initial application to council, one of her neighbours lodged their own development application to build a two bedroom house located 20 metres from the farm’s boundary line, on both sides, “as close to one of our proposed piggery sites as they could get”.
That development application was approved by the Hilltops Council, the first meeting involving a new administrator, and now the neighbours have made complaints about the potential odour arising from the proposed piggery, she said.
“But the house hasn’t been built and may never be built so the laws of NSW are now saying a two bedroom house that may never be built can stop a development that could employ 20 people in a struggling area,” she said.
“In Victoria, the proposal to build the house having been lodged second to the piggery proposal would have needed to prove that it wasn’t going to impact on the pig farm.”
Productivity Commission’s farm red tape report also delivers warnings
Ms Beveridge has also expressed concerns about local animal rights activists opposing the planning application and boosting the opposition on social media, while utilising links to other like-minded groups including those with vegan agendas – but holding no genuine local connection.
She said she was also unsure whether the council sought to verify the identity of those individuals who submitted opposition to the planning process.
Her family has already spent more than $300,000 on consultants in compiling various documents and detailed responses to serve planning requirements; especially questions about potential environmental impacts or cultural heritage issues.
Ms Beveridge said she was also concerned the application’s rejection could impact on Hilltop Meats’ plans to expand, which could threaten 100 local jobs.
A report from the Productivity Commission’s recent review of agricultural red tape quoted Australian Pork Limited’s submission which said local councils were often ill-equipped to deal with land planning applications and lacked understanding of intensive land uses like piggeries which “exacerbates this situation”.
“Many local councils have lost corporate knowledge and lack sufficient training and staff resourcing,” the report said.
The report also said regulation at a local level can make arm’s length decision-making difficult, especially in small communities.
“For example, Australian Pork Limited said that ‘community pressure on council staff and councillors is also resulting in local councils becoming overly conservative, avoiding taking an informed position as this leads to community repercussions’,” the report said.
“Outcomes at the local government level can also be susceptible to bias, especially if decision makers are affected by the issue under consideration.
“The Australian Chicken Meat Federation, for example, suggested that outcomes of development applications are based on particular prejudices of local governments.
“Under the current arrangements the outcomes of development applications often appear to depend on the particular bias of local authorities towards (or against) chicken meat production rather than the merits of the particular application.
“This has the effect of distorting which chicken companies are able to expand and which not, and contributes to the movement of location of chicken production from where it is most efficient to operate to where it is easiest to do business.”