David Blackmore’s wagyu beef is on the menu at some of the world’s most famous restaurants. The Victorian farmer counts US chefs Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck, England’s Heston Blumenthal, and locally, Rockpool’s Neil Perry among his fans.
The heavily-marbled beef, from the famed Japanese kobe beef bloodstock, can fetch up to $150kg at gourmet butchers.
The 5th generation farmer is a poster boy for Australian produce, featuring in Tourism Australia’s campaign to attract food lovers to visit the country. Chef Martin Benn from three-hat Sydney restaurant Sepia recently took Blackmore’s wagyu to New York as part of a showcase of Australian food.
There’s a steady trail of documentary film makers through his farm in Alexandra, 150km from Melbourne.
On Monday, Blackmore, 65, received yet another award for his beef at the Sydney Opera House. He was the 2012 livestock producer of the year.
But now he looks set to lose the Victorian farm where he’s been raising cattle for the last 11 years after a neighbour complained to the local council, saying, among other things, the farm attracted too many noisy cockatoos.
Last month, a majority of councillors ignored the advice of planning staff who recommended the Blackmore’s business continue, albeit under strict new guidelines, including a bird management plan, voting 4-2 against the continued use of the farm to raise the prized cattle.
The decision has alarmed farming community and chefs such as Neil Perry, who’ve started a petition backing Blackmore and calling on the Victorian government to intervene.
The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) labelled Murrindindi Shire Council’s decision “absurd”, with the potential to “undermine the prosperity and future of agriculture in this state”.
VFF president Peter Tuohey said his organisation was worried that councils like this would use planning laws to stifle the growth of Victorian agriculture in rural areas.
“The fact is David Blackmore and his family were willing to comply with a raft of 20 permit conditions – from maintaining paddock cover to bird management,” Tuohey said. “Yet the councillors rejected the permit on the basis of three brief dot points that had already been addressed under the permit conditions.
“This is a roadblock to one of Australia’s most innovative livestock pioneering families.”
The 20-page planning report prepared by council staff was referred to several state government authorities, including the EPA, who all backed approving the continued use of the site to raise cattle.
While the VFF believe the Blackmores have a strong case to overturn the decision on appeal, David Blackmore told Business Insider he may look at selling up, and two other councils have already been in touch offering him incentives to relocate to their regions.
The Blackmore’s farm contributes an estimated $3 million annually to Murrindindi’s local economy and another $3m to the Victorian economy. It employs 10 people, along with Blackmore and his wife, Julie. Their beef is exported to 20 countries.
The planning dispute is over the intensity of the farming. Neighbours complained about noise and odours. Council is concerned about the environmental impact on the landscape.
Blackmore runs 1350 head of cattle on the 150 hectares, grain feeding them to create the distinctive marbling that’s the hallmark of wagyu beef.
He bought the farm in 2004 and says his stocking levels are lower than they were in 2001 under the previous owners.
“It’s been a feeding farm since 1998 and we did a lot due diligence before we bought it,” he said. “Everyone said we didn’t need a license.”
But Murrindindi council took a different view following the complaints. Blackmore says the problem was deciding what sort of permit was needed. Some argued it was a feedlot, but eventually it was designated as “intensive animal husbandry” and a permit was required.
Everyone signed off on it until it got to council. Blackmore has until the end of August to decide what his next step is.
“We’ve worked hard all our lives and things were starting to get to the stage where we were ready to hand over to the kids,” he said. “Julie said get out. Our other choice is to move.
“They’re kicking us out.”
Chef Neil Perry is furious. He’s been using Blackmore’s beef in all his restaurants since opening Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne in 2006. The chef has started an online petition, appealing to Victorian premier Daniel Andrews and the agriculture minister to intervene so the Blackmores can continue to farm there.
“The council are saying this is all about intensive factory farming. I can tell you it’s not,” Perry told Business Insider.
“It’s just really ridiculous what they’re trying to say. There is no more ethical, sustainable farm in Australia and he’s a world benchmark for what ethical, sustainable farming is.
“This is what great farming is all about. It’s a beautiful and we should be proud of it.”
The chef has taken numerous other chefs to see the farm and laughs at the complaints about birds.
“Every time I’ve visited over the last 10 years there’s been cockatoos everywhere around the region,” he said. “How can they all be David’s fault?”
Blackmore says he put a lot of work into restoring the landscape on the farm over the last decade. The recommended permit, which council knocked back, demanded even more, but the farmer says he was already doing the work because “it was a good idea for animal welfare and economically as well”.
He cites the fact that the cattle put on 20% more average daily weight gain than they did in feedlot as proof that his farming methods work
“It’s because the cattle are happier,” Blackmore says. “We’re really open about what we do. It’s not as though we’re trying to put anything over anyone.”
The Change.org petition has attracted more than 3000 signatures. You can sign it here.
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