HE grew up on a lucerne hay, cattle and sheep farm in Tamworth and has worked in the agriculture industry his whole life, so Michael Burt has firsthand knowledge of what riles farmers in his area.
Michael, who is NSW Farmers’ regional services manager (RSM) for the North Coast, says that land-use conflict, environmental zoning and right-to-farm are some of the biggest issues – especially as increasing numbers of Sydneysiders flock north to the warm, picturesque coastal areas.
“There has to be some sort of right-to-farm,” he says. “Farms are already there, and residents and tourists have to understand that they’re going to get a bit of tractor noise.”
NSW Farmers takes many of these local issues in front of relevant ministers and council planners, to advocate for farmer rights. Despite some tensions, Michael says the climate and diversity of the agriculture industry make the North Coast a great place to live and work.
North Coast farmer Nick Lalli’s blueberry operation at Wells Crossing
“Beef is the main industry and there’s lots of smaller farms,” he says. “There’s also dairy and a really diverse horticulture industry of mainly bananas, avocados, macadamias and blueberries. There’s also oysters and a big movement of organic farming, especially for garlic.”
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Michael is himself a keen horticulturist. The RSM, his partner Jo, and their blended family of five teenagers live in the Bellingen Shire on a property sized just over a hectare. Michael has a thriving home orchard of citrus, mangoes, pecans, pomegranates and macadamias, and is trying his hand at growing finger limes, a bush food native to the local area.
Supporting local food production is an important part of Michael’s job. At Bingara in the state’s North West, these lemons are grown in one of six different food production areas in a “Living Classroom”.
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He has a lengthy history in agriculture. After finishing a degree in rural science at the University of New England, Michael spent 12 months working on vineyards and garlic farms in New Zealand, and then two years at the Rothamsted Research agricultural science station in the UK.
Returning to Australia, Michael began writing rural stories, before joining NSW Farmers. This experience means he is regularly called on to help the Association’s head office with regional press releases and social media.
In his job as an RSM, a role he’s held for about 13 years, Michael loves getting out to visit the members on his “long, thin strip”, which stretches from the Gloucester/Port Stephens area of the Hunter up to Tweed Heads on the North Coast.
"Farmers are quite amazing,” he says. “They have to be mechanics and business managers, and it’s interesting to go and see the ones that market their own produce as well.”
“We have a lot of farmers’ markets which are really popular in my area. A lot of our members value-add their own products through websites and Facebook. The kick I really get out of this job is supporting local food production.”