They were physically in the same room but attendees at the Blueberry Farming Awareness meeting hosted by Bellingen and Clarence Environmental Centres in Coffs Harbour on Thursday clearly fell into two camps, and the evening’s events did not bring them any closer.
Of the 120 or so people present, residents and activists were in the majority and did most of the talking, focusing on the health impacts of chemical spraying, illegal dams, pollution and repeated instances of inaction by regulatory authorities.
The other contingent of about 30 people consisted of farmers, ex-farmers and industry representatives, who occasionally interjected comments such as “Rubbish!”
Several of them did address the meeting, but like the speakers from the other side, much of what they said was off the cuff and regarded as contestable by others in the audience.
Two speakers whose content was concise and clear were both local government councillors.
Bellingen Mayor Dominic King presented the reasons why his council recently voted to go ahead with a planning proposal to require Development Applications (DAs) for new blueberry farms in the shire unless they meet specific provisions for exemption.
And Dr Sally Townley, an environmental scientist who is also a Coffs Harbour councillor but who was speaking as a private citizen, gave the meeting useful tips about how people with concerns about blueberry farming could find information about the applicable regulations and investigate whether reportable breaches may have occurred.
She mentioned local support groups on Facebook such as BerryWatch, Citizens Unite and the Bellingen Blueberry Action Group and an online tool called SIX Maps https://maps.six.nsw.gov.au/ that can be used to find out what area a DP number relates to if, for instance, it is mentioned in a water licence application.
Google Earth and its timelines can also be used to show changes at a particular property over time.
Dr Townley also presented a motion that she thought everyone there would be willing to accept: that ‘this meeting endorses a shared vision of a thriving, sustainable horticulture industry that does not negatively impact on water quality, soil health and adjoining land uses’.
However, the industry contingent argued the statement was meaningless because it said nothing specific and although the motion put at the end of the meeting did pass on the numbers, it was conspicuously not accepted by the farmers.
Even a motherhood statement about a shared vision failed to unite the two groups.