Upper house inquiry hears state of play for blueberry rust

DETECTED: Pickers harvest blueberries at Costa's Sulphur Creek facility in 2015.
DETECTED: Pickers harvest blueberries at Costa's Sulphur Creek facility in 2015.

A commercial blueberry producer has butted heads with MLCs in an upper house inquiry into blueberry rust incursions in Tasmania.

Blueberry rust is a fungal disease known to infect blueberry plants, causing defoliation and, in severe cases, plant death.

It was first detected in Tasmania in 2014.

A total of 51 growers were said to have been impacted by the first incursion.

In July 2016, the Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment Department and Biosecurity Tasmania declared that blueberry rust had been eradicated.

But a second incursion occurred one month later, as the disease was confirmed to have spread to commercial blueberry producer Costa’s Sulphur Creek farm.

While many growers in Tasmania feel that Biosecurity Tasmania should have continued down the path of eradication, BT chose to adopt a containment approach upon the second incursion.

Costa corporate affairs manager Michael Toby talked over the top of independent Rosevears MLC Kerry Finch when the member repeated claims raised to the inquiry that smaller blueberry producers felt “intimidated” by Costa.

“We ask the questions, you answer the questions,” committee chairman Ivan Dean told Mr Toby.

Mr Toby told the inquiry that Costa did not take steps to ensure that people who entered their Tasmanian farm had not been on blueberry rust-infected properties elsewhere in the country.

“People coming on the TT-Line in a car may have been on a blueberry farm,” he said.

“If you’re going to apply that sort of test, you’ll need to apply it to anyone coming into the state.”

Meanwhile, Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association chief executive Peter Skillern said DPIPWE “too readily moved from eradication to containment”.

He said both DPIPWE and BT had exhibited “a gross lack of transparency” throughout the blueberry rust saga.

“Is it worthwhile trying to eradicate [blueberry rust] now? Unquestionably,” he said.

“Biosecurity Tasmania and the department don’t have a full grasp of the agricultural sector in Tasmania.

“You have to call into question how serious we are about keeping our reputation for a strong biosecurity system.”

Mr Skillern said the blueberry rust incursions had “raised doubts” around Tasmania’s capacity to deal with such incursions.

DPIPWE secretary John Whittington said the department’s focus was always on prevention whenever an incursion occurred.

“We had a red hot go at eradication,” he said.

“We can always learn and do better.”