As indicated in the 2005 Metropolitan Strategy and subsequent 2007 Draft Sub-regional Strategies, comprehensive data on Sydney’s agricultural lands are key to effective planning on Sydney’s urban fringe. With the five year review of the Metropolitan Strategy in 2010, the need for relevant data is even more pressing. Despite the need for clear and coherent data, however, previous studies of Sydney’s agricultural land have consistently failed to create a coherent picture of Sydney’s agricultural industry and its changing nature and extent.

To examine the state of knowledge on the area, number and value of Sydney’s farms in more detail this paper undertook an historical analysis of ABS and non-ABS reports on the Sydney region, including the LGAs of Gosford and Wyong, from 1992 to 2009. This report illustrates that the current debates around the value and size of Sydney agriculture can be traced to concerns about the perceived undercounting of Sydney Agriculture in the ABS agricultural census. While the ABS is widely acknowledged as the most reliable source of data on Australia’s agricultural industry in general this has not been true in relation to Sydney’s agriculture. Since at least the early 1990s the validity and reliability of ABS census findings for small scale agriculture that takes place around urban areas have been bought into question by many non-ABS reports. Disappointingly low ABS estimates of the area and number of farms and of the value of the Sydney fresh vegetable industry, in particular, have been pointed to as evidence of ABS data inaccuracy. Characterised by small scale farms run by culturally and linguistically diverse groups, Sydney’s vegetable farms have been seen to belong to a class of agriculture – peri-urban farming – which has been systematically under-recognised by an ABS data collection methodology focused on broad scale agriculture. The perceived undercounting of Sydney agriculture by the ABS agricultural census resulted in the development of numerous non-ABS reports seeking to readdress the apparent data gap.

The non-ABS reports had an important role in improving the accuracy and reliability of ABS collection data for Sydney, leading to a substantial increase in ABS estimates on the value, area and number of Sydney farms. Changes made to the ABS collection methodology in the 2005-6 agricultural census saw a significant shift in results between the 2000-1 and 2005-6 ABS agricultural census findings. The capture of a larger number of small farms because of the revised methodology led to substantial increases in estimates of the area and number of Sydney farms in 2005-6. That this increase in area and number of farms was particularly evident in the vegetable industry indicates that many small-scale, culturally diverse Sydney farms had indeed been left out of previous ABS census surveys. Furthermore, our report indicates that confidence in post-2005-6 ABS data collection techniques relies substantially on the independent report by Malcolm and Fahd (2009). The non-ABS reports have contributed to much-needed debate on the accuracy of data on Sydney’s agricultural lands and have provided important qualitative understandings about what actually goes on across these lands.

This report also highlights, however, the need for more up- to date and methodologically consistent data on the area, number and location of Sydney’s farms for land use planning. Our analysis indicates that data from the majority of non-ABS reports should be used with caution due as definitive figures on agricultural land use and value due to methodological and technical limitations. One key issue is the specificity of data- sets due to methodological differences and the resulting lack of comparability between reports for longitudinal analysis. Another concern is that the failure to clearly outline the methodologies, data sources and the bases for various calculations, also make it difficult or impossible to now verify or reproduce the results from many reports. As a consequence of this lack of transparency, it has been difficult for policy makers and industry groups alike to have confidence in many of the estimates produced or for longitudinal analysis to be undertaken. Differences in their estimates have led to conflicting accounts of, among other things, the relative decline or durability of the agricultural industry and of its composition. Data disparities highlight the importance of transparent and replicatable methodologies for up to date, reliable data on Sydney agriculture.

In examining the reliability of the various data source and estimates, the principal finding of our analysis is that, contrary to popular criticism, ABS statistics from the 2005-6 agricultural census provide relatively trustworthy data on Sydney Basin agriculture. The improved accuracy of ABS data is demonstrated by compliance between updated 2006-7 ABS census statistics and the results of the most recent non-ABS ground-truthed study of Sydney Basin vegetable farms by Malcolm and Fahd (2009). Our report confirms current ABS data as the most consistent and comprehensive data set on agriculture in the Sydney Basin. It does however indicate that much research still needs to be done to provide a comprehensive picture of the state of Sydney agriculture.

As a result of the problems identified in both non-ABS and ABS data-sets, the report indicates that the question of the area of land under agricultural production in Sydney has yet to be satisfactorily answered. This is a critical data gap as it speaks to questions of productivity and land use and potential future requirements for the industry. The report does, however, point to a number of trends and issues in Sydney agriculture that will be provide a useful guide in planning for its future. These trends includes evidence that Sydney agriculture is increasingly intensive in nature while at the same time decreasingly soil reliant. While the exact amount of land under production is not known, the changing nature of Sydney’s agricultural industry suggests that the key planning issue may no longer be the preservation of prime agricultural land per se but rather the absolute amount of land available for agricultural production. The report’s findings indicate the dynamic and adaptive nature of Sydney’s agricultural industry and provide additional options for urban planning beyond the housing versus farmland debate. These findings also, however, emphasise the need for more detailed data on Sydney agriculture. This is particularly in the area of land actually under agricultural production to provide more accurate picture of the state of Sydney agriculture. The report also indicates the need for attention to, and further research on, the future economic, and social, viability of Sydney farms to compliment the necessary research into land use.

In confirming the improved reliability of the ABS agricultural statistics for Sydney our report indicates that the post- 2005-6 ABS statistics should be supplemented by remotely sensed data and ground truthed collection and surveys. The commissioning of complementary information collection is important for two reasons. The first is that such exercises can provide an important accuracy check for ABS data on Sydney. The second is that the use of GIS technology, remote sensing and ground truthing in non-ABS surveys can also provide detail of the location and size of area under production and thereby provide more conclusive information for planning purposes than currently offered by the ABS census. Conducting complementary surveys and data collection exercises can improve understandings of Sydney Basin agriculture and allow for the development of longitudinal data sets to determine long term trends. Such detailed longitudinal data are vital for planning for Sydney’s agriculture into the future.

Authors: Dr Sarah James, Professor Phillip O’Neill and  Mr Borce Dimeski.
With assistance from Dr Louise Crabtree.

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