On-farm biosecurity shows its worth in face of disease threat

Image courtesy of Biosecurity Queensland

Our second profile of the Farm Biosecurity Producer of the Year Award winners is of the Mackay Farming Group of Tully, Far North Queensland.

Bolinda Estate is owned by the Mackay Farming Group and managed by cousins Stephen and Gavin Mackay. Although known for growing 90 percent of Australia’s bananas, they’ve diversified the business over the years to produce cattle, sugarcane and papayas too.

They are no strangers to adversity, having been wiped out by cyclone Yasi in 2011, causing a nationwide banana drought for months afterwards.

The farm location at the top of the river catchment, with no farms above it, gives it a natural advantage to reduce pest and disease threats.

Initially, the main biosecurity threat to the bananas was from nematodes. But in March 2015 the banana industry in Far North Queensland came under serious threat from Panama disease TR4.

TR4 is an ineradicable soil borne fungal disease, capable of infecting and killing all commercial banana varieties grown in Australia. It can spread in soil, water and infected plant material.

With its history of biosecurity practices Bolinda Estate was well positioned to deal with this threat.

Even with a generic biosecurity plan already in place, they found that there were ways in which to tighten biosecurity further. Some of the main improvements were:

  • Reviewing the biosecurity plan, thinking particularly of the immediate threat from TR4.
  • Training for farm managers to better understand TR4 and the ways in which it can spread.
  • Improved communication with staff and service providers via inductions, toolbox talks, work instructions, shed maps and instructional signage.
  • Installing extensive pig proof fencing: 27km of it.
  • Creation of four distinct zones on the property, with authorisation from management being a requirement for entry into any of the zones.

Biosecurity is a ‘best bet’ approach to reducing the likelihood of pest and disease incursions through controllable pathways. But there is never a guarantee that even the highest levels of biosecurity will ensure a farming business remains pest and disease free.

Farm staff – who knew what to look for – were the first to spot some unusual symptoms on plants growing on Weary Pocket, a smaller 137ha farm. Samples were submitted for testing and on 12 July 2017 Bolinda Estate was placed under quarantine following a positive test result for TR4.

The Biosecurity Queensland Quarantine Notice applied to the entire property and meant that there could be no movement of soil or plant material from or between farms.

For most producers this would have been a major disruption to the business, and may have even been enough to make them give up.

But due to the extensive biosecurity protocols already in place, Bolinda Estate’s packing shed only stopped packing for two hours following the Quarantine Notice being issued.

How did that happen?

The banana fruit itself is safe and can continue to be harvested, packed and sent off farm, albeit under very strict quarantine measures.

Below is a list of activities and actions taken by management that made this possible:

  • comprehensive biosecurity protocols were already in place, and they had records to prove it
  • Weary Pocket was being managed as a separate property
  • the entire block containing the infected plants was immediately contained and isolated, before confirmation of the presence of the disease came through
  • access to surrounding blocks was restricted, totalling 57ha
  • they used specific management practices (eg nurse-suckering) to prevent unintentional movement of soil
  • protocols and procedures were quickly amended at short-notice, to meet the specific requirements of the quarantine notice
  • staff were always kept in the loop, and an open-door policy was maintained, which bolstered morale.

This business has shown that, with sound biosecurity practices in place, it is possible to continue trading under strict quarantine conditions, with minimal impact on the business. Bolinda Estate demonstrated it had the systems, procedures, documentation and skills required to continue trading.

Many in the banana industry doubted whether a banana farm could continue to trade in the presence of TR4. It was believed practices to prevent the movement of soil and plant material would be too onerous. It wasn’t easy, but it is a credit to Stephen, Gavin, their staff and the larger Mackay Farming Group that Bolinda Estate has continued to operate under quarantine.

Because the Mackays treated sections of their property as separate production areas, and were already implementing biosecurity measures, keeping records and documenting processes, they were able to show that there was no risk to other banana growers of spreading the disease.

Whether other producers could achieve the same result depends on a number of factors, such as the crop being grown, the pest or disease and how it can spread, the processes already in place to comply with certification procedures for market access, the records available for quarantine officers to check, and the willingness to meet the requirements.

It’s not that unusual for properties to need to trade while under quarantine notices. If it does ever happen to you, the more prepared you are the easier and sooner you should be able to get back on track.

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