LONG STRUGGLE: John Larsen checking his beans and peanuts in Coolabunia.
LONG STRUGGLE: John Larsen checking his beans and peanuts in Coolabunia. John Dalton

The right to farm the land

MEET John Larsen.

He is almost 80 years old and has been farming the same land for his entire working life.

Some Kingaroy locals call him "the miracle farmer”.

It is a term coined to explain why his crops are always better than everyone else's.

However Mr Larsen and many of his neighbours wake each morning to a lingering threat worse than drought, overdrafts, weeds or low commodity prices.

They are fighting for their farms.

Mr Larsen and his wife, Audrey, are opposing a proposal to turn their fertile red soil farm into an open-cut coal mine.

It is their fourth battle with a resource company in the last 10 years.

Neighbouring farms have been bought by a power company for a coal mine that did not proceed.

Another neighbouring farm was the trial site for a failed underground coal gasification plant.

The latest threat to his way of life and the land he loves is a proposal to turn Mr Larsen's beloved farm into an open-cut coal mine in 2018.

John and Audrey see themselves as protectors, not protesters.

They love their land and are humble in the knowledge that it produces sustainable and abundant food.

"Coal is under most of Queensland but how many farms can grow peanuts, beans, corn and also a whole host of tropical foods like bananas and avocados around the house?” he said.

His neighbours, Damien and Neralie O'Sullivan, are in a similar position.

They have just developed a new bore to access underground water for their beef herd but the uncertainty about the future of their farm due to the coal mine proposal delayed their decision to spend money on their farm.

"We have had 10 years fighting a series of poorly considered resource proposals on our farm and we have pretty much had enough,” Mr O'Sullivan said.

"The uncertainty about the wisdom of laying out any money for even important things like stock water is always on your mind and you spend a lot of time doing things other than farming.”

After the Cougar Energy Underground Coal Gasification trial failed over the road from their property in 2010, cattle from the O'Sullivans' farm tested positive for toluene in the months after the gases from the crippled plant escaped.

"We celebrated when the plant closed down but had no idea that they would just change the name of the company to Moreton Resources and try their luck with an open-cut coal mine application,” Mr O'Sullivan said.

Land use conflict is topical in the South Burnett at the moment.

Just as the community celebrates the opening of its recreational South Burnett Rail Trail, Moreton Resources plans to have it used for coal trains passing through the main street of local towns.

And just as the local KCCG group celebrates the fertility and beauty of the farms with an art and photography project called 385 Alive, the company continues its plan to convert the rich red soil farms into a coal mine.

The conflict of interest over the best use of the land could not be clearer.

"There has to be a better way to administer land use in this state,” KCCG president and dairy farmer Gary Tessman said.

He believes in the same way the state declares some areas as preferred coal mining zones or precincts, other areas should be declared priority agricultural areas to deter inappropriate mining applications over prime agricultural land.

The KCCG group and Mr Tessman have gone so far as to suggest to the government and major political parties that mining approvals should have an initial early assessment phase in the mining application process to deter purely speculative or inappropriate proposals.

They believe this may send an early signal to the company and its share holders as to whether the proposal is a state priority or is therefore likely to get support and approval after the development of an environmental impact statement.

"We offered this idea to both major political parties without success,” Mr Tessman said.

The mine near Kingaroy is somewhat unique in that the local mayor and state and federal MPs have declined to support the proposal due to its poor location.

All agree it is too close tothe town of Kingaroy andit should never be developed on prime agricultural land.

"It is uncommon that all three tiers of government would decline to support a coal mine,” KCCG spokesperson John Dalton, who lives near the proposed mine site, said.

The group knows that no Queensland coal mine has been denied approval based on its EIS but believes this one could be the first.

"It's difficult to imagine a more unsuitable site for a coal mine,” Mr Dalton said.

"It is just 4.5km from Kingaroy and only 1km from the 40 houses at Taabinga village. It's in the catchment of the town water supply and has no rail line to a port. Surely some form of preliminary assessment or common sense would have steered the company away from such a site.”

In this battle, the size of the opponent is not lost on these landholders.

Whereas the company proposing a mine gets a team of full-time experts to develop a mine proposal over several years, the local community has to fully understand it all and mount the opposing case in their spare time without specialist knowledge.

This, combined with a 30-day period to respond once the thousands of pagesin an EIS are published, is a formidable task to be done after work and in spare time.

Most people don't see the work that goes into producing basic foods and they are even less likely to understand the constant battle that goes into maintaining the right to keep farming.

But each morning the Larsen, Tessman and O'Sullivan families wake to the reality of what it takes to produce grain, milk and beef.

And it's a lot more than just traditional farming.

For these families near Kingaroy, it includes being able to debate complex matters to do with mining.

It also includes orchestrating a public campaign to counter the notion that some projects put forward by resource companies come at too high a price.

Family members need resilience to living in a state of sustained conflict and a sympathetic ear for spouses that need to talk about the latest developments one more time.

The cumulative effects of such a prolonged state of uncertainty and anxiety is a scarcely researched topic. Sleeplessness results from living with unresolved tension and protracted issues.

Frustration at having to devote scarce quality time to discredit speculative projects breeds various levels of resentment.

For people like the Larsens, Tessmans and O'Sullivans, living with chronic mining fight fatigue for more than 10 years is a price you pay for being a farmer.

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