Rail trail offers tourism lifeline to farmers
WHEN Ivan Holland's 120-hectare Hayters Hill property, between Byron Bay and Bangalow, was first settled by his ancestor JJ Hayter in 1881, the Casino to Murwillumbah train line that runs along its northern boundary had not been completed.
When the pioneer dairy farmer first looked across the escarpment to the little coastal village of Byron Bay, he could not have predicted the existence of the Norco factory, which was soon to become the biggest dairy factory in the southern hemisphere.
That more than a century later Byron Bay would become Australia's third most-visited tourist destination outside Sydney and Melbourne would have been beyond Mr Hayter's wildest imaginings.
But change is the only certainty in life, and luckily for the legacy of Hayters Hill, his descendants have consistently, and successfully, embraced change.
Now best known as the Byron Farmstay on Bangalow Rd, the angus cattle farm is owned and run by Hayter descendant Ivan Holland and his horsewoman wife Ange.
The farm is thriving thanks to Ivan's parents' decision to diversify into farmstay accommodation. Mr Holland said the farm would now be unviable without the dual income streams.
Today the family sees the winds of change once again offering an opportunity, this time with the rail trail - the proposed conversion of 130km of disused rail corridor between Murwillumbah and Casino into a modern cycle and walking trail.
The Hollands have already seen the benefits of cycling tourism. Recently with the help of a $13,000 Northern Rivers Tourism grant, they created a single-track mountain bike trail in a forest grove on their land, turning what was just accommodation into a tourist attraction.
Their farm is just 200 metres from the line. Its proximity to tourist mecca Byron Bay makes it the ideal beneficiary of the rail trail tourist dollar.
Having the two arms to the family farm was "absolutely critical", Mr Holland said.
"About 80% of our income is from tourism and 20% from primary production.
"There is probably going to be a bigger percentage from primary production in the next year or so because cattle prices are great.
"But the small part of our farm that is used for tourism punches well and truly above its weight.
"The competition in the tourism sector is really strong. On the Northern Rivers your offering has to be exceptional to get sufficient market share.
"Primary production is not so critical in that way but the challenge there is trying to get the value for your product.
"We are producing grass-fed free range angus cattle but you take them to the Casino market and they get mixed in with everything else. It's hard to be able to market them as the higher value product that we think they are.
"We would not be sustainable if we did one and not the other. It has now become critical we do both or else we would have to find off-farm employment," he said.
Rail trail pundits believe the infrastructure will benefit the former rail towns in the Richmond Valley Council and Lismore City Council areas by connecting them with the tourist mecca of Byron Shire.
Richmond Valley Council's support of the rail trail was conditional to it being the full length of the track and specifically that it starts or ends in Casino.
The trail enthusiasts believe the trail from Casino to Lismore may indeed be the biggest surprise - expansive vistas and beautiful grazing lands, ample wildlife, big gums and a unique and spooky 200m-long curved tunnel at Naughtons Gap.
Despite the enthusiasm, farmers at the Lismore Farmers' Market at the showgrounds - which could also potentially benefit from its location on the North Lismore train line - were generally suspicious.
Fears from producers from Eltham and Bexhill included public liability insurance, cyclists not closing farmgates, and general inconvenience.
The Greens member for Ballina, Tamara Smith, who recently travelled the 150km Otago Central Rail Trail in the South Island of New Zealand, said she had spoken to many farmers along the route who had previously been wary of cycling tourist disrupting their way of life.
They reported they were now thriving, thanks to a second income stream, Ms Smith said.
"Lots of farmers were worried. In Otago, they were just worried about what kind of people were going to be coming through and disturbing their businesses. There was a real sense of suspicion and fear of the unknown."
One such farmer, she said, turned his farm into a farmstay, creating seven little cottages and a tourist centre that celebrated the history of the property.
"In South Otago there were endless stories of little towns and little businesses coming back to life.
"We have lots of tourists coming from countries like China who want to see a beef farm. They want to do tastings and get to experience farm life. It's wildly popular.
"This is a different kind of tourism. In the Byron Shire we don't want the big alcohol- drinking tourists when we have worked quite hard to not be just a party town.
"Cycling tourists are mostly reasonable middle class and pretty well-behaved. They want to stay in a B&B.
"They are physically active, they might have a couple of wines but they are going to go to bed and wake up early for the next leg of their adventure."
Ms Smith said the argument had to move on from pitting public transport against the rail trail.
Indeed, a rail trail would keep the rail corridor in public hands at a time when public assets were being sold off, she said.
"We want to make concessions to the rail enthusiasts, and where possible, leave the tracks and never sell off those corridors.
"I see that my job is to keep perusing more public transport options for our people in our region. But that may look very different to the old train line.
"If that looks like driverless cars and ride- sharing, or a high-speed train from Ballina to Robina, so be it."
In April, Tweed Shire Mayor Katie Milne lost her proposal to commission a report on the potential to construct a rail trail alongside the existing rail lines.
In Tweed Shire there is 24km of track from Murwillumbah to Crabbes Creek.
She said she believed the community would blockade any removal of the rail lines.
"Public transport is just too important, especially for our frail and aging population," Cr Milne said.
However, Mr Holland said the negativity and potential protest could cost Australian farmers.
"Before we came back to look after the family farm we were living in Christchurch. New Zealand has had massive success with cycling tourism there.
"I feel like they have been far more positive about the idea of a rail trail and as a result are reaping the rewards.
"What New Zealand has is amazing and what Australia is realising is they are getting the lion's share of that side of tourism, and are now tripping over themselves to catch up."