AUSTRALIA: North Queensland banana-growing family reveals ‘nightmare’ existence since Panama fungus outbreak
by Marty McCarthy, abc news
The Robsons grow bananas on 166 hectares in the Tully Valley, in far north Queensland, and invited Landline to their farm to tell their story.
Early last year, Biosecurity Queensland confirmed their farm had been infected with a fungus known as Panama Tropical Race 4 (TR4), which has been crippling banana industries around the world.
“Every day I go to work I’m sick in the guts, I couldn’t give a damn about the farm,” Bevan Robson said.
It’s not a happy place’: Robson family struggling
Once TR4 invades a farm or growing region, it stays in the soil for decades, and strict quarantine measures are needed to prevent soil movement to other farms.
TR4 affects Cavendish bananas, which make up 90 per cent of the bananas grown in Australia, and 90 per cent of the global banana export trade, due their strong commercial traits.
Confining the virus to the Robsons’ farm has been seen as a priority by the banana industry and Biosecurity Queensland, but that has come at a cost to the Robson family.
“There are people at the gates seven days a week and there is 24-hour surveillance of us.”
“It’s not that happy place anymore, it’s a sad place and it breaks your heart to see Mum and Dad go through that every day and you kind of wish it was over,” Mr Robson’s daughter Shaye Robson said.
Early reporting ‘helped save local banana industry’
Biosecurity Queensland said it understood the ordeal had been “very stressful” for the Robson family, but said strict biosecurity measures had been critical for the sake of Queensland’s $600-million banana industry.
So far Panama TR4 has not spread to any other farms in Queensland, although authorities are currently testing samples taken from a suspect plant on a nearby property.
Biosecurity Queensland said the early detection of TR4 on the Robsons’ property and Mr Robson’s reporting of it to authorities helped save the local banana industry.
“We urge all growers and the community to respect and maintain farm entry and exit biosecurity and to report symptomatic plants,” Biosecurity Queensland’s Panama program leader Rebecca Sapuppo said.
“Growers’ chances of extending the profitability of their farms are greatly improved if the disease is controlled and contained in its early stages.”
Doug Phillips from industry body the Australian Banana Growers Council (ABGC) said it was a miracle the fungus had been contained.
“I think there is always a risk it is going to move on, the nature of the disease is that it’s hard to keep on top of.”
‘No other farmers ring me up’
The Robsons have still been able to sell bananas, but the strict quarantine measures have made operating more expensive, and the stigma difficult to deal with.
“You feel like you’re out there by yourself,” Mr Robson said.
“I don’t know why they don’t ring, they might just not know what to say, but don’t hesitate to ring me, I’d like some moral support for the family.”
Mr Robson said he avoided the media in the past, but now believes it is important that people know the impact the experience has had on his family.
“We’re a quiet family and we don’t want no circus, but there are people with misconceptions and they don’t fully understand the consequences or how the disease is,” he said.
“I can’t wait to walk out of here and never see another biosecurity officer in my life. It’s been 18 months of hell.”
Farm sale on hold amid further testing
The Robsons invited Landline to their Tully Valley property on the day the farm was meant to sell, and be placed under permanent quarantine.
The ABGC plans to buy the farm, with funds from increased grower levies and the Federal Government, for $4.5 million and take it out of production.
But the sale has been delayed, as Biosecurity Queensland investigates another property with plants showing similar symptoms to plants infected with TR4.
“We certainly hope that [with] these results, like so many others, that the samples will come back negative,” Mr Phillips said.
“When they do, it is our intention to proceed with settlement and take ownership of the farm.”
Biosecurity Queensland told ABC Rural that preliminary reports showed the samples were “not strongly consistent” with TR4, but the final results will take several weeks.
Prior to the development, the Robsons had farewelled their staff and stopped harvesting bananas, but will now have to continue farming until a verdict is known.
Mr Robson added: “There will be no more farming for me, no more banana farming.”
Source: abc news