For 15 years banana growers in Coffs have faced an uncertain future over the proposed $1 billion Coffs Harbour bypass project, first mooted in 2004.
Today, they continue to fight tooth and nail, to ensure the best outcome is achieved for local farmers.
By Sonia Campbell
Coffs banana growers are continuing to maintain pressure over the proposed Coffs Harbour bypass project, in an attempt to minimise the impact the roadworks will have on their farming.
In the 14 years since the preferred bypass route was confirmed, up to a dozen banana farmers have left the industry, choosing to walk away from properties in the direct path of the 14km project, rather than re-establish on farming land elsewhere.
One of those spearheading the on-going campaign to ensure tunnels are built into the bypass, instead of large open ‘cuttings’, is banana grower and NSW Farmers Coffs Harbour Branch secretary Paul Shoker.
Mr Shoker’s family-owned Gatelys Road property is also in the direct path of the bypass. While he and his family have spent 15 years preparing for the significant transport project – buying a second farm to re-establish their operations on – he said the roadworks would still have a significant impact on most remaining farms.
“Generally, I don’t think farmers should get in the way of progress, it’s a major transport link and it’s going to benefit everyone,” Mr Shoker said.
“However remaining farms will be impacted by roadworks particularly if they choose cuttings over tunnels.”
“Deep cuttings, which will require significant earthworks – changing the hills and landscape – have the potential to change the whole microclimate of the area, including wind direction, noise and the overall environment that we grow in.”
“The result is likely to be exposure to severe winds, evaporation and reduced crop yields.”
Farming in the local valley generates between $10-$15 million annually in economic activity for the area. It’s a figure Mr Shoker has highlighted consistently during a lengthy community-driven campaign to lobby government to reintroduce original tunnel options to the bypass plan, arguing that cuttings would result in significant economic losses.
In January 2019, following intense public pressure from local action groups, the NSW State Government announced that tunnels were back on the table in the bypass design.
Now, with a Federal election looming, lobby groups have set their sights on all Federal candidates in the Coffs-based Cowper electorate, seeking commitments by major parties to bipartisan support for the tunnel option.
The Federal Government is a major player in the bypass proposal, as it will fund 80 per cent of the $1 billion project.
“We can’t change the route, so it’s up to grower groups to ensure the next best outcome is achieved,” Mr Shoker said.
While the level of impact from the bypass project on local banana growers will be dependent on a final ‘Tunnels vs Cuttings’ decision, Mr Shoker said
industry would adapt, as it had done since the project was first mooted.
“I’d say growers are quite resilient. We’ve been through a lot, but the growers that have survived will continue,” he said.
“We will stabilise. We are going to lose a couple more farms, but we will diversify. There is interest from growers in putting in other varieties such as Lady Finger and Ducasse, more cold tolerant.”
Kaye Adriaansz, business manager of Golden Dawn, which supplies locally grown fruit and vegetables to the major and independent supermarkets on the mid-north coast of NSW, as well as central markets in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne & Adelaide, said the 30 year-old company had also had to make modifications to compensate for losses in banana supply, including diversification.
“We definitely have had to diversify. We have moved into expanding the blueberry range and reach, because obviously that has taken off in the Coffs Harbour area,” Mrs Adriaansz said.
“There is no stopping it (the bypass), the route has been planned for 15 or more years. We are not sure at this stage whether the growers will go and find land elsewhere and replant. They’ve accepted that it has to happen one day, but I think once all the machinery moves in, that it will be a different story. That’s when it finally becomes a reality for their lifestyles and livelihoods.”
Australian Banana Growers’ Council’s board of directors met with Coffs banana growers to discuss concerns over the by-pass link, during a number of NSW farm visits in February.
The ABGC Board offered its support to growers and committed to lobbying on their behalf. ABGC has since written to the Coffs Harbour City Council and the NSW Transport Minister to reiterate grower-related issues and concerns.