IMAGINE this. You find yourself alone and sitting quietly in a vacated ministerial office, in fact the workstation for the Queensland Minister for Agriculture.
As you look at the week-old dust lightly blanketing the main desk, you hear muffled voices and knocking. You follow the sounds to the corner of the room where you find a dusty old chest covered in junk.
With an open hand you swipe reels of red tape off the chest and the voices get louder. The chest is labelled “Bovine Johne’s Disease”. You open the latch and lift the lid, to find a young Ashley Kirk, his family and a host of other producers have been locked away.
It's no surprise this group of people are keen to see some fresh political faces in charge this week as a Queensland government emerges from the rubble.
Ashley and his family have a red Brahman stud in Central Queensland where they’ve been working on their bloodlines for 60 years.
But in August 2012 Ashley noticed some issues with a few of his cows. “They should have been in better condition in relation to the other cows and calves," he said. "So after exhausting all options we slaughtered one and submitted tests - Bovine Johnes Disease (BJD) never came into our minds. But on October 26, 2012 it was confirmed as BJD.”
Rockley Stud and the Kirks have been at the epicentre of the BJD catastrophe. The State government have had them quarantined since 2012.
Sickness grew in the stomachs of Ashley and his father Chris at the news, and as the shock wore down they hit the phones, alerting the hundreds of producers who had bought their bulls. What a sad experience it must have been.
“It was made clear to us that both AgForce and Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (QDAFF) preferred we remained silent, this has been evident in their communications from day one” Ashley said.
“But we decided in an act of decency it was best to get on the front foot and to alert our clients. We also typed up a letter and sent it out.” To date their biggest supporters have been their clients and the media. Organisations like those mentioned above seem fixated on the appearance of a ‘clean and green’ image.
“At first we thought QDAFF knew what they we’re doing, they seemed organised, measured and it was all for the greater good of the industry. We were so wrong.” Ashley said.
It seems that QDAFF have bitten off more than they could chew by agreeing to a national policy to eradicate BJD. Now they’re choking on it with draconian policy and a team that lacks efficacy. And they're not helped by a Minister who’s been hamstrung by his own department’s incompetence but insistent on painting a pretty picture to trade partners that there’s nothing for them to worry about in sunny Queensland.
“We’re hoping with a fresh government some changes take place to see the department actually manage the situation, not by just labelling Queensland ‘controlled’ and thinking that’s the end of it.”
Ultimately these producers want one of two outcomes.
Either to be properly compensated for being wrapped in red tape, held ransom to policy made on the run and banned from stud sales. Or preferably, like Victorian producers, allowed to self-manage the disease. Producers are already allowed to self-manage other diseases and want to see a realistic policy support them to proactively manage BJD which leaves them operational and rewarded, not destroyed.
There is no doubt about it, the self-inflicted disjointed nature and internal quibbling of Australian agriculture continues to be its own hobble chains, always keeping itself from greatness. The dog's breakfast that is the Queensland BJD response is another fine example. Whilst fighting a stigma that mutes most involved, States and associations fight over BJD and never agree, which only amplifies the problem.
Ashley jokingly tells me he thought he had BJD himself at one stage, as the emotional and financial stress took it’s toll and saw him waste away for some months. “But we’re a strong family and pulled it together. We got stuck into what we could and navigated through the worst,” he said.
It seems the hunger and determination to overcome the most obscure obstacles are safely engrained in the rising generation of Australian farmers.
This is evidenced by the news Ashley and family will re-open the front gate next year after managing their way as best they can in uncharted waters to produce a line of bulls for a stud sale that meet BJD requirements.