The excitement of onlookers at Port Moresby's airport as crates of bleating sheep were unloaded onto trucks for their new home on the Sorgeri plateau on November 18 was matched only by the group of Australians who have been working for five years towards the first-ever shipment of sheep and goats to Papua New Guinea.
The live export flight of 149 Meatmaster sheep, consisting of breeding ewes, weaner ewes and rams, has been the dream of long-term PNG trader John Wallace, who had been casting about for ways to cater to a young, burgeoning population.
As well as breeding and producing meat sheep for the PNG market with the first commercial lamb production system in the country, the elevated covered shed setup aims to improve PNG's food security by helping villages set up their own systems.
It's been established by BNG Trading, the oldest and largest importer, distributor and marketer of grocery products in the country, celebrating its centenary next year and which Mr Wallace's family has owned since 1975.
The ground-breaking idea was born on a 2018 Anzac Day flight between islands in Fiji, when Mr Wallace found himself sitting beside a 'cowboy character' rather than the usual Australian holidaymaker, who he discovered was Graham Reimers, the Fijian Department of Primary Industry's resident small ruminant expert.
"We got talking about how he ran sheep and goats in the tropics, and how he fed them leaucaena, which is high in protein," Mr Wallace said. "I thought, there's my answer. It was sheer fate."
Mr Reimers agreed to be the project's consultant, and an old 500ha cattle farm, Koitaki, 45 minutes from Port Moresby, near where the Kokoda Track concludes, was leased, and Protein Park was born in 2019.
The next step was preparing land and planting the Redlands leucaena they'd decided would be the most suitable variety, and erecting the shed the sheep would be living in, in 2020.
Mr Wallace said the region received 30cm of rain a month, hence the need for the secure, controlled environment to live it. As experienced around the world, the project lost a lot of momentum thanks to COVID, and Australian government feedback on the export protocols required wasn't received until October 2021.
While Mr Wallace praised PNG's National Agricultural and Quarantine Inspection Authority for their support for the project, Mr Reimers said the protocols from the Australian equivalent were extremely complicated.
"I've done a lot of this, to Malaysia, China, the UAE, Saudi, Brazil, Vietnam, and this would be the most difficult assignment I've ever had," he said. "My personal opinion is that AQIS was actively finding ways to prevent the shipment."
Another part of the puzzle that made the shipment possible was the fifth-generation family enterprise Coggan Farms at Meandarra, which bred the Meatmaster sheep eventually exported to PNG.
As an example of the difficulties the project faced, Mr Reimers said the Coggans bred eight sets of lambs before liftoff finally happened.
"The lambs that we sent were 12 weeks old, just weaned, and yet we had to scan them for lambs," he said. "It was ridiculous, they were far too young to conceive."
Coggan Farms received a Queensland RAD grant to expand their feedlot capabilities and to build a small quarantine centre aimed at helping businesses such as BNG meet export protocols, and Cindy Coggan said the day the sheep were loaded onto the planes at Brisbane airport was the realisation of many things for them.
"AQIS said they couldn't remember the last time live sheep went out of Brisbane," she said. "From leaving our property to jumping out of their crates on the farm in PNG took 22 hours. The most exciting thing is that this was done commercially."
Mr Wallace said because it had never been done before, there were bound to be many challenges.
"Consumers in PNG can't wait for our product - hotels, caterers, the general public, have never had fresh lamb up there," he said.
An arm of BNG Trading, PNG Freezers is the country's largest smallgoods and meat processing business, with branches across the country, and will be doing the processing.