Wheatbelt farmer and 2010 Rural Woman of the Year Sue Middleton will urge the Government to take a leaf out of farmers book if they are serious about a sustainable future for the sheep industry in Western Australia, when she leads an all-female delegation to Canberra this week.
There are fewer better examples of ‘thinking outside the box’ than where I farm with my husband Michael.
Wongan Hills in the central wheatbelt of Western Australia. It’s like many parts of rural and regional Australia, the people are so clever at achieving so much with so little.
Our community has built its own phone tower, our own housing and our own childcare centre.
We even invested in our health care centre to attract the doctors we were sorely lacking.
We don’t sit around waiting for the Government to fix things for us, we get in and make it happen. We figure out what our community needs and we respond.
It’s also this ingenuity that defines our wheatbelt farmers. A commitment to continual improvement, to exploring new ways of doing things, to adapting to the environment and to community expectations.
It’s an approach that the Government needs to draw on in developing a sustainable path forward for driving the growth in the sheep industry, which includes a sustainable sheep export market.
Sheep sold to the export markets such as the Middle East account for 30-40 per cent of my state’s total sheep turn-off. This is an essential part of our industry and a vital component of our farming systems.
But it’s not just about farmers and farming systems. The second biggest industry other than agriculture in the wheatbelt is transport. And that industry is built on moving stock and grain.
Livestock exports employ 10,000 people across northern and western Australia alone. That might not sound much when you live in inner city Sydney or Melbourne, but for our communities, these businesses are our lifeblood.
The industry has before it a proposal to prohibit sailing when temperatures are likely (based on historical data) to reach temperatures of 28-degree wet bulb or more. (Wet bulb temperature is the dry-bulb temperature after consideration is given for cooling brought about by humidity – i.e. the wet bulb will always be lower than the dry bulb temperature).
Not only would the Heat Stress Risk Assessment (HRSA) proposal shut down all trade during the northern summer but the shoulder months of April to October.
We think there is a cleverer way to change the live export industry, a way that preserves the employment and industry in our communities, and gives the Australian community confidence and trust that we can make sure our animals are cared for right through to the markets in other countries.
When WA sheep farmers saw the images on their screens of sheep dying and suffering, we were devastated. Like other people across Australia, we were outraged. Outraged that our animals endured such circumstances, and devastated about the supply chain.
But the guilt for this treatment of our livestock should not have been shouldered by farmers. Farmers had upheld their duty of care to their animals. It was those involved in the shipping process, and to an extent the regulator, that let us down.
As farmers, we knew that there was only one way to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Since then farmers have taken it upon ourselves to learn the ins and outs of the exporting game and to work with Government and exporters to ‘fix it up’.
This process has included give and take. Including a voluntary moratorium by exporters on all trade to the Middle East in this year’s northern summer – June to August, until a way to prevent heat stress in sheep is determined. We welcomed this.
One thing is for sure we couldn’t see a repeat of the images aired in April.
But now, we’re at a point where proposed changes are disproportionate when compared to the risk faced. The proposal is not the best way to drive change. Its drafters haven’t adequately balanced the need to prevent heat stress with maintaining a sustainable live export industry for our farmers, communities and international customers.
A Technical Advisory Group, convened by the sheep sector consisting of vets, academics on-vessel experts and farmers, has gone over the proposal with a fine-tooth comb and used its combined expertise to find a smarter way.
A way forward that as priority maintains animal welfare and secures a sustainable future for this crucial industry.
This week I’m leading an all-female farmer delegation to Canberra to discuss the need for a more pragmatic approach to the HSRA assessment.
We’ll be meeting with MP’s and Senators of all ideologies and suggesting a different approach to heat stress risk. An approach that, like the current HSRA proposal, aims to greatly minimise the risk of heat distress in the trade.
Our proposal includes an indefinite moratorium on shipping between June, July and August. We’ll be calling for innovation what would see improvement to ventilation, source stock protocols and an objective, evidence-based approach to risk and consequences.
As is farmers’ trademark, we’ve encountered a problem and we’re working on a solution.
If farmers gave in to the hardships and challenges past, if we relied on the Government to come up with the solution, we wouldn’t be the success our industry is today.
The history of Australia would have been very different without the ingenuity and spirit of the people that have created rural and regional Australia. That spirit can’t be mandated by a Government.
I hope Government can draw on our successful history of innovation and problem-solving as inspiration for a mutually beneficial clever solution to heat stress.
This will create a positive future for the sheep industry and for all of our communities and families.
Submissions in response to the Government’s Heat Stress Risk Assessment proposal close on March 1. Producers can access a simple email-automated submission at https://www.liveexportfacts.com/have-your-say