Penny's Fight for a Farming Future

Penny Blatchford is a cotton and grain farmer from Gurley, near Moree in north west NSW. Penny was born and raised in the north west. Both of her parents are farmers and her grandparents were farmers too. Penny's husband Robert grew up on a property nearby.

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For the past 16 years, Penny and Robert have owned and managed dryland broadacre cropping and opportunity cattle properties at Gurley and Bellata.

"In the summer we grow dryland cotton and mung beans. All of the water that we have for our crops is from the heavens or artesian water that feeds our soils and crops from underground.

"Our winter cropping is usually cereals and legumes, and oils, and so we grow wheat for our bread, barley for our beer, we have canola sometimes which is made into oil, mung beans for our salads and faba beans for our winter soups," she said.

Penny's farm produces enough cotton to put a pair of socks on every man, woman and child in Australia, enough barley for 18.2 million bottles of beer, and enough wheat for 11.5 million loaves of bread. The annual crop also includes enough mung beans for 10.8 million meals, chickpeas for 520 million meals, and a whole silo full of faba beans for winter soups.

"When you grow something from start to finish, when you plant the seed, there’s a great connection, because you know that someone will be wearing it, or someone will be eating it, and it’s really important to do the best that you can."

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Penny is also a mum of three and an accidental activist – she joined the campaign against coal seam gas after her family's property and many other farms in the region were threatened by coal seam gas exploration.

"I will never forget that Sunday morning. It was the June 26 2011 at 8:20am. As I relaxed in bed, I heard my husband, Robbie, answer the phone and ask, with some shock in his voice, 'Where do you want to drill for gas?'" 

Penny took the phone and spoke to the woman from the gas company, "I tried to explain to her how important our land was, and she actually said 'well it’s fine, we’ll just put it somewhere you don’t care about'. That really upset me - I don’t know any farmer in this country, or any person when they own a piece of land in Australia, that would find something they didn’t care about."

After years of leading the effort to protect her local community from coal seam gas, Penny won reprieve when the government cancelled the licence over her region.

Penny explains how her community stepped up to the challenge of protecting their farms against the threat of coal seam gas.

"We got the community together and we formed a group. We surveyed all of the landholders and they signed a declaration that they wanted our licence cancelled and no further exploration on the lands. So we were the first group, and the first petroleum exploration licence to have 100% of landholders say no. That was a big deal.

"Then we approached the government. We did Freedom of Information searches. We had independent scientific reviews done on anything we could find with respect to the searches, the landscape. We put an argument together.

"Eventually, after four years, the government believed we were actually correct, that the gas company had breached some of their licence conditions and that the licence should be cancelled."

Penny knows this is not a permanent protection and at any time another coal seam gas company could come in and be granted the licence. But she's not giving up.

"I understand our soil types, I'm quite versed now with the Petroleum Onshore Act, I've got great networks and I know I've got the capacity to stop a licence and so I've got no problem in stopping another one."