BIG COAL is buying up the farm at an alarming rate.
Coal companies own nearly 350,000 hectares in some of the State’s most productive farming and grazing districts.
The impact has been felt both by farming families, who have either walking away or leased back country, and also more broadly in the industry – where stock agents reported an alarming drop in cattle sale yardings.
Analysis of the NSW Government's Land and Property Information database by landholder group Lock the Gate detail coal companies’ ownership of private landholding in seven of NSW’s most coal-rich local government areas (LGAs).
Roger Fuller is a stock agent at Singleton, the dead centre of Hunter Valley coal mining development.
In Mr Fuller’s LGA, 15 per cent of freehold land is in the hands of coal miners. He said yardings have halved in the last 15 years.
According to Lock the Gates, nearly one quarter of the prime land country in both Singleton and neighbouring Muswellbrook is owned by coal companies.
In the highest producing coal regions, Muswellbrook and Singleton – coal companies owns or occupy 23 per cent and 27pc, respectively, of the high quality agriculture, designated as Biophysical Strategic Agriculture Land by the government.
Lock the Gate Hunter spokeswoman George Woods said the data demonstrates “that the impact of mining on regional economies and communities goes far beyond the footprint of the actual mines themselves.”
Coal company land ownership
Mining companies are forced by law to buy properties that would be significantly impacted buy their operations and often buy extra adjacent land as a buffer against potential conflicts, or to help pave the way for future expansion.
Mr Fuller said the Singleton cattle industry has taken a nosedive in the past 20 years.
“We’ve lost so much country, and a lot of it is good country. Most of it is under management by the coal companies," he said.
“Around 25 years ago, we had the fifth biggest yardings in the State, but now we have lost so much land through mining and (residential) subdivision.
“We used to average 1600 head of cattle per week 15 years ago, but now we are down to 700 to 900.
“There used to be five agents in town, and now there is three here now. The mines have made it hard for cockies to get casual labour and it is hard to get saleyard workers as well.”
Gunnedah, Boggabri and Narrabri has seen significant land acquisition following development of coal projects by Idemitsu, Shenhua and Whitehaven.
Jacob and Anderson agent Guy Gallen said the local cattle industry had been significantly impacted and some buyers could find it difficult to purchase grazing and farming land.
“A lot of farm families have sold properties to the coal companies,” Mr Gallen said.
Those prop are sometimes locked up and not released. When they are leased back, they are released to someone who has already sold a property to the coal mines.
“There is less grazing land on the market now. The coal companies target red basalt type soils, because that is where the coal is. That means grazing and some winter cropping country.”
He said leaseholders did not have the same incentive as freehold farmers to invest in productivity.
“You don’t get the same level of production from a property if it was still in the hands of the family that owned it.
“We’ve lost production without a doubt.”
Coal companies are also currently eyeing expansion in the Upper Hunter Valley.
Scone stock agent Jim MacCallum reported yardings have not dropped off as dramatically as Singleton, but said land values have inflated while management of country has suffered a similar fate to Gunnedah and Singleton.
“The biggest impact from coal here is on land values, especially with all the carbon offset country purchased by miners in last five years,” Mr MacCallum said.
“They also lease a lot the country back to people in the district.
“When country is leased back to landholders it is never run the same as it was when people owned.”
“Some country is run nothing like it was before. Obviously lessees can be reluctant to spend money on (the land). A lot of country that was owned by four or five families previously is now owned by one company, and they might only employ one person to manage it all.
“Two places we’ve sold, which were well run and maintained breeding country, have been purchased for carbon offsets and are they’re run under a different regime without the same level of care.
“A lot of that country is not maintained to the same level from a weeds and fencing perspective.”
Mr Fuller has seen the same process unfold in Singleton.
“If you have your whole living in a parcel of country you’ll manage it far better than if it is a hobby or tax deduction,” he said.
Typically, the PAC takes a relatively narrow focus and considers only a project proposal’s eligibility under the law. However, in a report to the Planning Department on Shenhua’s Watermark project the government was instructed to develop policy to protect top-quality country.
“The NSW government should undertake some more detailed work or refinements to identify and protect those highly valuable, fertile black soils where mining should be prohibited,” the PAC found.
The PAC said it “acknowledges the significance and productivity of the black soil plains and agrees with the view that the (black) soil plains should be preserved for agricultural production”.
What followed in November would appear to be something of a rebuke from the Department to the PAC’s unsolicited advice.
Minister Pru Goward released a “suite of improvements” to processing of state significant proposals – which including amongst other reforms “giving clearer guidance to the PAC on the application of government policies”.
Ms Woods said individual project assessment fail to account for broader regional impacts from coal development.
“Coal project approvals in Muswellbrook have been treated on project by project basis by the planning system, where one mine was been considered as a separate entity from a neighbouring mine.
“But at a landscape scale there has been massive change and we are now having to live with that change.”