Intensive Horticulture

Intensive blueberry farming has expanded immensely in recent decades. It pollutes our waterways, creates seas of plastic waste, takes too much water and is largely unregulated.

The Clarence Environment Centre passionately campaigns against the unregulated nature of local intensive horticulture (the blueberry industry in particular) and lobbies for development applications to be required along with a comprehensive water management strategy.

Recent audits found that more than 80% of intensive horticultural operatives in the Coffs Harbour local government area were non-compliant with water laws. Testing the water showed high levels of nitrogen and other toxins which is totally unacceptable and illegal!

This industry relies on an insatiable need for water and uses high levels of pesticide. Therefore, with the current lack of regulation, all this is having a profound impact on river flows, water quality, and on the local communities spiritual well-being.

The reality is that authorities have:

  • no idea how many horticultural enterprises there are,
  • how many hectares are involved,
  • how many more are planned,
  • how much water they are using, or
  • where that water is coming from
A sea of plastic across Red Range Corindi Beach, NSW (Google Earth)

Of the few regulations, ‘growers [are] prepared to pay fines as a business cost’ according to the Blueberry Interagency Working Group.

The Clarence Environment Centre first became aware of the emerging problem as far back as 2008, when Dundoo Creek turned to mud overnight after heavy rain. A large swathe of bushland was illegally bulldozed on Gilmore’s Lane, Halfway Creek and as a consequence the landowner was fined $200,000 (who anecdotally, wrote a cheque without a murmur).

Since then, the CEC has campaigned against plans to take water from various waterways within the Orara River catchment: Blueberry farming at Halfway Ck threatens significant wetlands 2014, Blueberry Farming At Qwyarigo Threatens Wetlands, and Bawdens Bridge, as well as at Glenugie in the Coldstream River catchment. 

More recently, in 2017 at Bawdens Bridge, the largest blueberry farm to be built immediately ran into problems. Over 200ha was cultivated with rows mounded and covered with black plastic weed matting then drip irrigation pipes laid – then, suddenly, work stopped! Unofficially, the CEC was told that the project was halted because they couldn’t source sufficient water. 

And we are left with a sea of unused plastic – breaking down and entering our waterways.

Now the rapidly disintegrating plastic is no longer visible, hidden under a mass of weeds, but the situation highlights a serious emerging problem – plastic pollution.

The amount of plastic used in this industry is huge; plastic sheeting, weed matting, irrigation pipes (4km of each per hectare), plastic igloos and netting, plastic trays, tubes and pots, punnets, drums, etc, it is endless and it all breaks down within as little as 2 years.

In 2020, 12 years after the Clarence Environment Centre began raising concerns, the Natural Resources Access Regulator finally took action and started to investigate blueberry farms in the Coffs Harbour area using the one regulatory tool available to them, water.

The media reported the Rampant Expansion Of Blueberry Farms Trigger Compliance Crackdown (SMH) 21-9-20 telling the story.

The regulator inspected 31 growers and found that 28 were non-compliant with water regulations i.e. stealing water. Incredibly, the industry responded claiming the vast majority of growers were doing the right thing – but that was only in regards to water! 

At the time, the regulators did not check: 

  •  pesticide use and handling,
  • erosion control,
  • how growers dispose of their plastic waste, such as the millions of pots and worn out weed matting, or
  • the native vegetation that was destroyed to establish the orchard in the first place.

By late 2021, the state government decided to act.  Unbelievably, they tripled the amount of water landowners can take as a “harvestable right” – Madness!

We are asking the authorities to get serious about water use, work out what water is available and then only allow a limited number of operators. Right now, they have no idea how many hectares are under intensive horticulture or how much water they are taking. This has to change.