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The surprising benefit to bottom line in farming with TR4

Tully grower Warwick Flegler
Tully grower Warwick Flegler (pictured right) receiving his Interstate Certification Assurance (ICA) Accreditation allowing him to certify his own fruit consignments. He is pictured with BQ Compliance Officer Jess Portsch and BQ Compliance Manager Paul Garland. Image courtesy of Australian Banana Growers’ Council and Biosecurity Queensland

Panama disease tropical race 4 is a devastating disease, no grower would wish upon another.

However, the owners of two infested properties in the Tully Valley have shed some positive light on continuing to operate with the disease – including some surprising economic outcomes.

Gavin MacKay, who manages MacKay’s Bolinda Estate (first detected with TR4 in July 2017) with his cousin Stephen MacKay, says that having the disease on their Tully Valley property meant they’d paid much closer attention to how they did things on farm, and there’s been some surprising benefits.

“In the beginning, we thought it was going to be very onerous with Biosecurity Queensland (BQ). But the reality is, working with BQ meant we have become more quality-focused in the field,” he said.

“We worked on a higher level of hygiene in the field which gave us a better product and out-turn. So for all the heartache you’re going through at the time, the nett benefit outweighs the imposition.”

“Initially we used to have to throw away some bunches due to having leaf material present. It took three months for our quality processes to flow through, and now we don’t lose any. That is benefitting our bottom line”.

Warwick Flegler is another grower farming with TR4 and he agrees with Gavin.

“When a farm has TR4, no soil or plant material can leave the property and I gotta tell you, I did not realise how much leaf material was in a bunch until you have to make sure none is there!” Warwick said.

Warwick also explained that his fruit quality had improved mainly because there were now less rats in his bunches.

“Our rat control program has improved which has meant less rats, so less leaf material and better quality fruit.”

Initial detection

When a grower gets TR4, BQ assemble a dedicated team to work with the grower and their staff to understand what is needed to contain the disease and to keep trading. And, in the beginning, BQ and ABGC are pretty hands-on.

Gavin was asked what it was like initially, having BQ on their farm all the time. He said that BQ had been a great support, especially in the early days.

“We wanted to keep packing and sending out fruit so having BQ staff on-site to help educate our staff and troubleshoot issues really helped.

“We knew there were a set of rules to protect not only our farm but the rest of the banana farms across this region. So as long as the system was fair, which we’ve found it to be, we’d work within it.

“We worked collaboratively with BQ and ABGC and that made it a faster process for us to manage TR4 and implement systems on our farm,” he said.

Warwick also found that working with BQ was a positive experience that ultimately benefited his farm, allowing him to continue trading in an industry he is heavily invested in.

“Jodie Bocking and her team at BQ were brilliant. They knew their stuff and were clear on what we could and could not do and helped us find solutions.

“BQ were really approachable and made the transition for us much easier. We were back trading within a few days,” Warwick added.

The move to self-management

Panama TR4 Program’s Operation Manager Donna Campagnolo said BQ worked with the grower to build a better understanding of how their farm operates so they can build in the legislative requirements into existing processes wherever possible.

“A good example of this is fruit inspection. When it came to BQ inspecting the fruit, we looked at what the grower was doing already, and managed our inspection process in cooperation with the growers to lessen the impact on their packing operations,“ Donna said.

Fees apply to inspecting and certifying fruit so the next step was getting growers to certify their own fruit consignments. BQ with ABGC and Biosecurity Solutions Australia developed a new Interstate Certification Assurance (ICA) Accreditation Operational Procedure – ICA 67 – which allowed growers to do just that.

Both infested farms are now ICA 67 accredited and certify their own fruit. This is a step in the right direction towards growers self-managing TR4 whilst meeting their food safety and biosecurity obligations.

For growers to completely self-manage TR4, and for the industry to be assured that all is being done to limit the spread of disease, BQ builds a body of evidence that farm operations meet the requirements of a ‘Notice of presence of Panama disease tropical race 4’ (notice).

That is done in stages over time. Both farm owners worked with their staff and BQ to come up with innovative ways to move people, vehicles and fruit whilst working within the notice. Some examples include:

  • using footwear exchanges between clean and dirty zones rather than undertaking the cleaning and decontamination processes required by the notice
  • using black plastic to cross public roads or establish clean access roads for trucks that need to enter farming zones
  • sealing trailer tops so there is less to disassemble and clean, making it easier to move fruit.

Once this body of evidence has been completed, BQ conduct scheduled compliance audits with the farm to ensure the legislative requirements are adhered to.

Both farms are now at the self-managing TR4 phase with compliance audits being undertaken and they are seeking support from BQ when needed.

“For the first few months BQ was on our farm a few times a week, but over time that lessened,” Warwick explained.

“These days it’s got to the stage where I call when I need to talk something through and BQ come over. That’s in addition to the surveillance team that come out every six weeks to check for signs of the disease”.

Both Gavin and Warwick offered their final words to share with industry.

“Some people have this idea that it is not TR4, but what if you are wrong?” Warwick said.

“I have never seen anything kill my banana plants so quick like that before. Why not protect your farm now? I tell you, it’s much easier to do it now as it gets harder when you’ve got TR4.”

He added; “It’s worthwhile getting BQ to come out now. They know their stuff and can point out what would work with a notice of TR4 and what would not. You’re going to want to send bananas off your farm as quick as you can so I’d book a visit, do the thinking and, if you’re going to spend the money anyway, why not do it now with less hassle?”

Gavin agreed, adding, “Sitting back and waiting to see if/when you get TR4 is not a good game plan if you want to be in banana farming for the long-term.”

Acknowledgement: reproduced with permission from an article in the August 2019 edition of Australian Bananas magazine (Australian Banana Grower’s Council) written by Sarah Flenley, Biosecurity Queensland

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