Sydney basin agriculture: from Governor Macquarie to Macquarie Street

Sydney basin agriculture: from Governor Macquarie to Macquarie Street.

 -John Newton

“The farms on both banks and especially those on the left bank are rich and well cultivated and make a pretty appearance from the water, being heavily interspersed with orchards of peaches and other fruits.”

Governor Macquarie Nepean Hawkesbury tour, Tuesday December 4th 1810

The good governor wrote these words almost exactly a year after he had arrived to take up his post as fifth governor of  the colony on January 1 1810.

Before his arrival, a culture of ‘inequitable land granting and dealing had established itself in Sydney’ (Mason and Knowd, see below)

He and Lady Macquarie and a party travelled by horseback and carriage along the banks of the Hawkesbury/Nepean from Jamistown (now part of Penrith) to Green Hills (later re-named Windsor) and Macquarie wrote ‘Mrs. M and myself were quite delighted with the beauty of this part of the Country; its great fertility and its Picturesque appearance…’

On the 6th of December, he proclaimed five towns: Wilberforce, Pitt Town, Windsor Richmond and Castlereagh. Their purpose was to  service the surrounding farmlands which were taking advantage of the fertile soils and microclimates to provide food for the growing settlement of Sydney. Macquarie’s intentions were good and his vision fine. But on his return to England in 1820, greed took hold once more, the ordered development he planned was pushed aside and rampant self-interest again took  precedence, and land was grabbed and exploited by the wealthy. Many would say that almost 200 years on, little has changed.

By 1920 there was a subdivision boom in Sydney to meet the demands of prospective homeowners and speculators. The real estate industry followed the encroachment of the fingers of tram and train infrastructure. In the urbanizing areas, quarter acre blocks were carved out. Further out,

1 to 10 acres ‘farmlets’ were sold .

By the 1940s, suburbanization had definitely started to sprawl out across the basin, described at the time as ‘promiscuous urbanization’ and a ‘rolling wave.’

Many of the post war migrants bought land  and realized that while growing food, their land was increasing in value as the suburbs crept towards them. When they arrived, they sold to developers and moved further out, waiting for the next wave of concrete and tiles to catch up to them.

By the 1980s, agricultural  land in the Sydney region was regarded in the bureaucracy  as ‘land awaiting higher economic development.’ In 1993, a planning official replied to a question about planning for agriculture in greater Sydney by saying “There is no place for agriculture in the Sydney region. Agriculture belongs over the (Great Dividing) range.”

Things had not improved in 2004 when in answer to a question I put to the then Minister for Western Sydney, Diane Beamer,  she said “They [the market gardeners of western Sydney] should know that they will have no future beyond the next 20 years.”

Indeed things had gotten much worse. Planning in Western Sydney was driven not by rational decision making but by the size of the donations given to the NSW Labor Party by developers. I recall at a meeting of farmers and interested parties in Penrith in 2004, a senior planner in the planning department admitted sadly to the meeting that the department would make recommendations  which were almost always totally ignored.

As the report by Mason Knowd (see reference below) states: ‘Despite zoning being introduced as the mainstay of planning controls in NSW in the 1940s, there has never been any political foresight or will to put in place the protections that other international jurisdictions have done for agriculture associated with large cities.’ They cite the city of Vancouver which has managed to add another million residents and expand its agricultural lands. It’s a matter of planning rather than grabbing.

In 1991, the Parklea and Kellyville release areas that were re-zoned from agricultural to residential. At that time, according to Landcom, the number of residential dwellings in those areas could be counted in the ‘hundreds.’ Accross the country the same thing was happening, more and more CAFOs and more residential land. Listings such as show how much re-zoning was taking place in other places. By 2006, Blacktown and Baulkham Hills held almost 150,000 houses. Between 1991 and 2006, Rouse Hill alone went from 156 to 1,820 households, and between 2001 and 2006, the population increased 855 per cent.

In the four years from 1996 to 2000, there was a 10.5 per cent (8,600 hectare) reduction in the land available to agriculture in the Sydney region.

Imagine a Sydney surrounded by suburbs stretching, pretty well unrelieved, from Picton in the south, north and west to the edge of the Blue Mountains, on up to Wiseman’s Ferry, gobbling up Gosford, marching down the coast to Woollongong: from the air, a solid block of terracotta. One name coined for such places – and Sydney would be neither the first nor the last – is Megalump.

There would be no place in the Megalump for market gardeners, fruit orchards, flower growers or small dairies. All our fresh produce would be flown, railed or road transported in from similar areas – Agzones? – vast covered fields of lettuces and tomatoes and carrots grown to standard sizes and shapes and delivered, plastic packed, to a supermarket near you. You want zucchini flowers? Sorry, not enough demand. Fresh herbs? Grow your own – or see the freeze-dried aisle.

Then there is the alternative seen as inevitable by many, perhaps (and) including the duopoly who control 80 per cent of our food supply: import everything.

This is not an entirely fantastical view of the future of Sydney and similar large cities unless we begin to plan for the inclusion of agriculture in our plans for Sydney’s future.

Much of the information in the above comes from: The emergence of urban agriculture: Sydney, Australia by David Mason and Ian Knowd.

Sydney Agriculture: some statistics


Agriculture in the Hawkesbury Nepean Basin is worth $1billion to NSW each year. This figure grows to $4billion annually when you add the  indirect income generated from Sydney agriculture.

Taking up just 2.5 per cent of the state’s land, Sydney farms produce:

15 per cent of  NSW’s agricultural produce

  • 20 per cent of  the state’s vegetables
  • 100 per cent of leafy greens – including the Asian vegetables we love to eat)
  • 48 per cent per cent of  its poultry.
  • 100 per cent of its mushrooms

And Sydney’s farmers are not just productive,  they’re efficient – five times more efficient than the rest of the state’s farmers.

The average return per hectare from Sydney farmland is $5433 per hectare

  • Across the rest of NSW , it’s just $136 per hectare.

In fact, the river flats of the Hawkesbury Nepean Basin are among the best and most fertile farmland in Australia.


Extracted from Gillespie P, Mason D. 2003. Sydney Basin Industry Details. NSW Agriculture, Orange.

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