The family at the centre of the Panama TR4 banana fungus outbreak has spoken about their ordeal, describing it as “more than hell”.
“We were the innocent party,” said Bevan Robson, whose 400 acre Tully Valley farm gained national attention when the soil borne disease was detected nearly two years ago.
“We done the right thing by the industry and put our hand up and more of less we have lost our business, we have had to shut down. We had 50 workers and now we got nothing and I am unemployed.”
Bevan and wife Jenny started growing bananas about 35 years ago.
“My father bought a 50 acre farm and I bought his half out and we kept expanding,” Mr Robson said.
“In the last 20 years our kids joined us.
“It was a family affair and it was going to go on for another couple of generations.”
That wish for the future came crashing down in 3 March 2015 when a suspect plant was found among Cavendish banana plants at the farm. It threw the couple and their children – Heidi, Casey, Shaye and son Kirk, who worked the farm as well – into chaos.
What followed was “more than hell”, Mr Robson said.
“What we had to do with our machinery and washdown, and dealing with biosecurity with cameras on your gate, seven days a week,” Mr Robson said.
“You felt like a prisoner in your own home. We did everything to save this industry and now the industry has to save itself.”
Daughter Heidi Quagliata said the family hadn’t told their story to date, opting to speak through lawyers during the ordeal.
“It was stressful and everyone was watching us and you felt you had to be cautious,” Mrs Quagliata said.
Mr Robson said when the suspect plant was detected, the family immediately shut down operations, until Biosecurity Queensland told them to “get protocols going and go and work”.
Having already laid off the farm’s 50 workers, Mr Robson had to scramble to hire more staff and spend thousands of dollars on protocols.
“Then I had to get more staff and that’s when the drama started, that’s when it started hurting,” Mr Robson said. “We should never have started.
“Before we started we owed $300,000, when we got out of it was $1.8m. It was low prices plus extra costs. It cost a couple of dollars a carton extra to produce.”
Mr Robson said he also believed the buyout took too long to finalise.
The Australian Banana Growers’ Council purchased the farm in October last year for $4.5 million, funded by $1.5 million from the Federal Government and a $3.3 million government loan which farmers will pay back through increased levies.
“We had 20 months of pain and suffering, I paid all my levies, I done everything right by the industry,” Mr Robson said.
Mrs Quagliata said the buyout was not a decision the family took lightly. “We could have grown other crops but would have had to have done a risk assessment,” she said.
Mr Robson said he hoped the industry had learnt from what his family went through.
“I hope the industry learns something out of it,” Mr Robson said. “If it doesn’t show up in five years there’s got to be some questions asked. “I could live with panama if it was panama, but I couldn’t live with biosecurity at your gates all the time.”