Local council insists it's not trying to shut down Australia's most famous beef producer

David Blackmore on his farm

Beef farmer David Blackmore is fighting to keep the Victorian farm where he raises expensive wagyu cattle after the local council refused to grant him a permit to continue to farm there the way he has for the past decade.

In June, the council voted 4-2 against granting him a permit to continue what it calls “intensive animal husbandry”.

Fans of his beef, which can sell for up to $200kg in butchers, include US chefs Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck, and England’s Heston Blumenthal.

Rockpool chef Neil Perry has been using Blackmore’s beef for a decade and started an online petition, appealing to Victorian premier Daniel Andrews and the agriculture minister to intervene so the Blackmore can continue to farm there. More than 90,000 people have signed it.

The Victorian Farmers Federation labelled Murrindindi Shire Council’s decision “absurd”, with the potential to “undermine the prosperity and future of agriculture in this state”.

The refusal to grant the permit caused alarm and anger in food circles around Australia, but yesterday Murrindindi mayor Margaret Rae responded saying the debate is “poorly informed” and a “continued misinterpretation”.

“It’s been disheartening to see that the message being portrayed is that Murrindindi Shire Council is ‘shutting down’ the Blackmore farming operation and that the owners are being ‘kicked out’. This is absolutely not the case,” the mayor said.

“Council’s refusal of this particular application does not prohibit Mr Blackmore from continuing to farm his land the way he was prior to choosing to intensify his program through intensive animal husbandry practices, which triggered the requirement to apply for a planning permit and also prompted concerns from neighbouring properties.”

Mayor Rae was one of the councillors who voted in favour of Blackmore being granted the permit he was denied. Her statement makes no mention of the fact that the vote ignored the advice of planning staff who recommended the beef farming business continue at its current level, albeit under strict new guidelines.

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 cattle fattening business in its current form.

The council’s investigation into the farm and whether it required a permit occurred after a neighbour on a small allotment beside the 150-hectare farm, which Blackmore purchased in 2004, complained about the smell and noises, including the sounds of cockatoos.

Blackmore says his neighbour bought into an area zoned rural-farming and now the council “wants the farm to change to suit a town amenity”.

The mayor said council’s decision was about “the need to manage impacts of intensive farming practices on the environment and amenity of the surrounding area”.

“The perception that we are taking away Mr Blackmore’s ‘right to farm’ is inaccurate,” Cr Rae said.

But David Blackmore told Business Insider that council’s decision left the business non-viable and ignore the existing land use there for the past 15 years.

“They’re not forcing us off the land, but they are forcing our business off the land. And our farm is a successful business, not a lifestyle,” he said.

“The mayor is correct that council is not stopping us farming, but making us reduce our numbers by more than a half is stopping the way this farm has been farmed for nearly 20 years.

“This is country that’s worth more than $10,000 an acre. It’s not economically viable to run it the way council wants.”

The 2012 livestock producer of the year has 1350 head of cattle on his farm in Alexandra, 150km from Melbourne.

Blackmore says the stocking rates are lower than they were 15 years ago under the previous owner, and lower than many dairy farms.

“This farm was set up in 1998 for higher stocking rates. That’s the reason we bought it,” he said. “We did not increase our stocking rates.”

Blackmore is hoping that the Victorian government will intervene to overturn the council’s decision by declaring the business as state significant.

His beef certainly has national and international significance, featuring heavily in Tourism Australia’s push to put Australian produce on the global stage.

The farm features in a new documentary series (see above) produced by Tourism Australia, with chef Neil Perry visiting the site.

The Victorian government is grappling with an increasing number of “right to farm” conflicts and are looking at changing the planning laws, with agriculture minister Jaala Pulford saying that the industry and community need certainty.

Blackmore has one other option if the government doesn’t intervene. He can appeal the council decision in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), but the 60-day deadline for lodging an appeal is just two weeks away.

But the 5th generation farmer is now 65 and his wife, who owns half the business, thinks they should sell out and go. Blackmore says he’s increasingly sympathetic to her view and the thought of lodging the VCAT appeal fills him with dread.

“We’ve never been to court before in our lives and we’re very scared of the prospect,” he said.

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