WA sheep producers claim Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt's speech at the Australian Meat Industry Council's Meat Processing and Export conference on Queensland's Gold Coast last week shows his government is out of touch with reality.
When talking about his government's plans to phase-out live sheep exports by sea, Mr Watt raised a few eyebrows after saying processors such as Minerva Foods had plans to expand operations to meet demand.
Minerva Foods shut its Shark Lake abattoir in Esperance in early September, after only 14 months of operation.
"The volume of sheep meat exports to the Middle East is already growing back to the heady days before the last drought and this change will lead to even more opportunities," Mr Watt said.
"This is also important for the implementation of the government's commitment - taken to the past two elections - to phase out the live export of sheep by sea.
"I'm a firm believer in following through on your promises and the Albanese government will see this through.
"But we have also promised to do it in an orderly and considered way, that has the least impact on Western Australian producers.
"In recent years, we've already seen the decline of live exports, alongside a massive expansion of sheep meat exports - including to the Middle East.
"I'm confident this policy will actually create even more opportunities for value-adding in Australia, by lifting the proportion of sheep slaughtered onshore even higher.
"Which is good news for processors in the west, as thousands more head of sheep are sent to local abattoirs.
"In fact many processors, including WAMMCO and Minerva, have already indicated they intend to expand their operations to meet this demand in the coming years."
Mr Watt said there were constraints and issues that need to be dealt with, namely labour and housing.
"And that's why we've said we'll take the time to properly implement this policy," he said.
"We will work through the recommendations of the report I received last week from the independent panel advising on our commitment, and we will work with you to implement them."
Mr Watt's speech follows the previous week's Senate hearings where Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARES) executive director Jared Greenville ruled out any link between the government policy and the phenomenal drop in sheep prices in WA - before admitting, when questioned, to not having done any in-market consulting in WA with producers, processors or anyone in the market.
This made the opposition question how ABARES was able to inform Mr Watt, saying it had not done sufficient research.
Mr Watt said the live each export industry was declining, despite statistics to the contrary.
In 2021/22 sheep exports totalled 489,064 head and for 2022-23, the total export figure was 691,797/h - a lift of 202,733/h.
Given these figures, people within the industry argue the policy is more ideological and politically motivated than based on evidence, facts and science.
Former Rudd government agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon also addressed the AMIC conference, condemning the recently-launched National Farmers' Federation (NFF) campaign, Keep Farmers Farming, saying it was doomed to fail as it was trying to fight on too many fronts (see story on page 21).
WA farmers have responded to the latest government commentary as they deal with the knock-on effects.
Scott Stirrat, Narembeen
Scott Stirrat runs mixed cropping and sheep across two locations, one east of Nungarin and the other east of Muntadgin and is also the Shire of Narembeen president.
He said the government's policy has had a profound affect on the sheep industry in Western Australia.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this policy has had an affect on the sheep industry in WA, whether that be lower prices, investment into the live export sector or the long term planning for producers," Mr Stirrat said.
"It has definitely reduced the confidence of growers in my area and throughout the State.
"The State government and the agriculture minister have a real opportunity to stand up for us and fight for this industry.
"It is not about closing the live sheep export industry in my opinion, in my mind it is about making the industry better.
"There is no practical reason they are implementing a ban.
"It would be nice to see a government,
whether that be State or Federal, get in there and support us and our industries - not just live export
but timber, commercial fishing ad various other industries."
Tony and Liz Sudlow, Ogilvie
Tony and Liz Sudlow run up to 8000 sheep as well as an Angus stud (Kapari Angus) and cropping, in Ogilvie, north of Northampton.
Sheep and wool production is integral to their business and Ms Sudlow is also the Shire of Northampton president.
"I've been farming for 40 years now and I have never felt so affected and attacked by outside influences," Mr Sudlow said.
"Agriculture is a fantastic industry and governments and society should be doing everything they can to support food production in this country, not try to tear it down.
"Absolutely, the impending ban (live sheep) has already had an impact.
"All free markets are based on confidence.
"The Labor party's ideological ban on live sheep export will remove a large alternative sheep market for WA producers, for no other reason, than to appease a few inner-city electorates.
"As an example: a friend of ours recently gave away 800 Merino lambs, because there was no market for them.
"A year or two ago, he would have been paid at least $50 straight off the ewe.
"A feedlotter would have bought them.
"They would have been on feed for a few months until they were ready for live export.
"Along the way the trucking industry would have been paid for two trips, the shearing industry would have been paid for a shearing, grain would have been bought in from a local supplier and the rural agencies would have received commission at every point of sale.
"Export income would then be brought back into Australia.
"The actual impact, for jobs, regional communities and GDP is far greater than just those 800 lambs from one farm, which will likely not be bred in the future.
"The live export industry has done everything that has been asked of it to address welfare issues, yet still a perfectly legitimate industry is going to be shut down.
"This should send a shiver through all industries across Australia, not just agriculture.
"The countries that we are supplying food to, in the form of protein, have every right to be offended."
Ms Sudlow said many local producers across the shire had decided to reduce sheep numbers or exit the livestock industry entirely "because they can see the writing on the wall, with this ludicrous decision". "According to local stock agents, it is expected that sheep numbers across the shire will reduce by at least 25 per cent,'' Ms Sudlow said.
"Sheep producers have lost confidence in the capacity of the WA State government to advocate, on behalf of farmers.
"It's a sad reality that towing the Labor party line is more important for State politicians, than representing its constituents and supporting what they would know is a significant industry in WA."
Daniel Simpson, Orchard Valley
Daniel Simpson and wife Narelle farm in Orchid Valley, between Kojonup and Boyup Brook.
Mr Simpson said the Federal government's claims that the live sheep export policy had not effected the downturn in sheep prices in WA was incorrect.
"Obvious there is an oversupply of sheep in the market at the moment and not having the boats to release those sheep to overseas markets would make the situation even worse," Mr Simpson said.
"I don't feel like the State Labor government goes in to bat for the farmers - that is the previous agriculture minister or the current one.
"The policy and its affect on the market has already affected us as we are carrying over wether hoggets we would not otherwise, as well as taking stock and looking at what happens over the next six months.
"But I will definitely be reducing the number of ewes we breed to Merinos next year.
"The more markets available for our sheep the better off we will be."
Allan Willmott, Tambellup
Allan Willmott runs mixed cropping and sheep with his wife and children at Tambellup and changed the way the sheep program was run to accommodate the proposed live sheep export ban, when it was discussed in 2019.
"100 per cent this policy has already had an affect on the sheep price in WA and has affected us personally as well," Mr Willmott said.
"We have not been able to sell the sheep because the market is not there for them and overall it has got to the point where the processors are over-supplied and buyers can do what they want.
"Processors can't get workers, yet they tell us they can handle all the livestock we can give them.
"They are spreading misinformation, whether intentionally or not, it is mixed messages.
"We changed the way we focused our sheep program.
"We were always traditionally live export for our Merino wethers - but when they first announced they were going to close the live export trade we decided to change also and started to try to fatten them up for the abattoirs.
"But by the time we had done that, we were unable to get them into the abattoirs because the new seasons crossbred lambs were entering the market and they no longer wanted the Merinos, leaving us with all our yellow tags and then the same thing has happened with our red tags this year.
"Even though we attempted to change and adapt to suit what we thought was going to happen, it's just not going to work.
"I am disappointed in the government.
"To add to it all, we are facing the perfect storm with early shut off of the season, it is a worry for the us with the effect on the dry paddocks and no feed."
Wayne Button, Tammin
Wayne Button and wife Pippa own Manunda Merino stud, Tammin, and while Mr Button said that live sheep export was not the sole cause of the drop in the markets and growers confidence, it was a contributing factor.
"I think the government at both levels are out of touch," Mr Button said.
"The sheep game is as negative as I have seen it.
"We have all been through these ups and downs, but the sentiment now is what sets this apart, we haven't had this doom and gloom sentiment.
"We would like to be getting support.
"As far as having the capacity to be killing sheep or livestock at the moment, that is a fairly negative comment from the minister.
"They need to get out in the real world and have a bit of a look around and find out from the people that are on the ground, the people that are in the industry that they are meant to be supporting."
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