FROM a satellite-connected computer on his farm out the back of Bollon, Queensland, surrounded by starving stock, Rob Moore spent 2014 waging a one-man war for reform.
His theme - price transparency in the beef supply chain - has been raised often enough in the past, but with scant progress toward a resolution.
Mr Moore has the unshakeable belief - at least unshakeable in public - that there’s an answer, and he has it.
If he achieves nothing else, this tenacious lone grazier has put the issue so firmly on the political agenda that this time it seems unlikely to disappear without some progress being made.
Price transparency and Mr Moore’s templates for reform, the United States’ Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 and the 1999 Mandatory Livestock Reporting Act, were frequently raised during the Senate inquiry into the use of grassfed cattle levies.
When the Senate committee handed down its findings, Recommendation 7 - urging an investigation of those US Acts - was the only recommendation that wasn’t subject to lengthy critique by the cattle industry.
As it happened, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) pre-empted the Senate recommendation by putting out tenders for a consultancy to look at whether the US Acts might have value for Australia.
Mr Moore was unimpressed. He thinks the terms of reference for the MLA consultancy were watered down to the point it has become “an enquiry into whether we should have an inquiry”.
Also, a sore point: he tendered for the job, and didn’t win.
Frustration and rage
Six years ago, Rob Moore didn’t know how to turn a computer on. Last year, he typed enough words - online, in letters and submissions, and in article comment sections - to fill a decent-sized book.
His fingers were driven by frustration, and sometimes, rage.
A decade ago, Mr Moore paid off the debt he and wife Leanne took on by buying the family farm, “Grassmere” when they were married in 1984.
It was 20 years of hard slog to arrive at that moment in the bank. During that time the couple barely looked up from the farm.
Debt free, they began to look forward to maybe “banking $30,000-$40,000 clear for the year”. It would be a time, Mr Moore thought, when at least one of the couples’ three children would be home to help consolidate the 17,000-hectare operation, or they could employ someone to shoulder some of the workload.
“I don’t want to be Sidney Kidman,” Mr Moore says. “I just wanted to do it a bit easier here.”
The children didn’t return home, at least not permanently, and dwindling returns on cattle meant the money was never there for an extra hand. Then the past three years of drought and depressed cattle prices hit.
After years of not making enough money on cattle to safely redeem debt if he racked it up again, Mr Moore last year took a stand and decided not to take on debt to feed his stock.
“The season called my bluff. I have had to watch my stock die.”
The Moores have built a herd with specifications aimed towards the high-end grainfed trade. Watching stock die meant, among other things, putting bullets into 10 bulls' worth around $6000 apiece.
“I’ve kept a diary for 30 years straight, every day,” Mr Moore says. “About September, I threw it in the bin. I couldn’t stand chronicling the fact that I was starving my stock.”
“Leanne pulled it out of the bin, but I haven’t written anything in it since.”
He calculates that cattle prices dropped $200 a head in 2013, translating to $200,000 in absent income from “Grassmere” - $200,000 that might have been used to keep his stock alive.
An angry campaign
Drinking too much, eating too little, Mr Moore poured his anger into his campaign for cattle price transparency.
He’s haunted the comments sections of online news sites, written thousands of words in letters and submissions, and driven thousands of kilometres to talk to directly to people of prominence prepared to give him a hearing.
Without being part of any inner circle, he’s become known to federal ministers and senators and beef industry leaders. He tries not deal with staff. “If you go to the top, they can’t push the issue up and down the chain.”
He’s “been a bit of a boofhead”, he acknowledges: often rude, and self-promoting beyond his own comfort zone. “Looking back on some of the stuff I’ve done, I sometimes cringe. But then I think, bloody hell, I need to impress on these people how important this is.”
He’s also conscious that despite widespread agreement on the principle of price transparency, when it comes to his specific solution - the “Primary Production Pricing Bill (PPP)” - he is a band of one.
“It used to bother me,” the ex-Australian Beef Association member says, “but not anymore. I don’t have to look over my shoulder for approval. I just do it.”
Rain won't cool him off
2015 has brought something new into the equation: grass at “Grassmere”. It’s only been there a fortnight, the product of early January rain, but it’s already made Rob Moore a more peaceful person.
The day he spoke to Fairfax Media, he introduced 18 fat new Texel rams to his ewes - the first time in a while that “Grassmere” has seen an act of creation, as opposed to destruction.
It’s a moment of reprieve, but it hasn’t lessened Mr Moore’s resolve to push for the PPP. It’s unlikely to have made his reformist avatar any more polite in 2015, either.
The results of 80 per cent of Australian cattle trades are never publically disclosed, the Bollon grazier reckons, leaving producers short of the information they need to calculate a true market price for their stock.
He suggests that selling cattle into the current opaque market environment is like going to fill up your car at a service station, but with no fuel prices advertised.
His solution, the PPP Bill, proposes a radical inversion: an online offer board where those seeking cattle would post specifications and the sum they were prepared to pay, and producers could lock in contracts on a first-come, first-served basis.
The “single desk” system would apply to cattle transactions not conducted through public auctions, putting all transactions are on the public record. This would provide the framework on which a system of cattle market intelligence could be built.
The industry has welcomed Mr Moore’s push for better price transparency, but the PPP is a step too far for many. Mr Moore is undeterred.
“I’ve got no doubt it’s the answer to everything,” he said.
“Foreign ownership, rural debt, supermarket duopolies - it ticks all the bases, that one simple rule.”