Nearly 30 years ago, Graham Clapham noticed a patch of poor looking cotton on his farm near Norwin on the Darling Downs. What ensued was a roller-coaster ride of emotions, from anguish to finally acceptance and a new way of thinking.

It was 1990 and what turned out to be the exotic Fusarium wilt started with a small patch of damage.

“The first small patch was about 600 metres from my house and ran down to Clapham Road which I went up and down several times a day, so we saw it immediately,” Graham said.

“At first there was only in one spot in one field and I didn’t think it was anything new because I knew about Verticillium and thought that’s what it may be.

“We fallowed that field the next year, followed by cotton and it appeared right across the whole bottom of the field and seedlings were dying in strips.

“I recognised that this was a serious problem and contacted people in the industry.

“Plant pathologist Dr Joe Kochman (from the then Queensland DPI Farming Systems Institute) in Toowoomba came out and said ‘this is Fusarium wilt…’”

That’s when farming as they knew it changed for the Claphams. It took another two years to officially confirm the diagnosis, and in the 1992-93 season it was communicated to the industry that Fusarium wilt had been found for the first time in cotton in Australia.

 Darling Downs farmer Graham Clapham knows first-hand what is involved in finding and dealing with an unknown visitor to a farming enterprise.

Darling Downs farmer Graham Clapham knows first-hand what is involved in finding and dealing with an unknown visitor to a farming enterprise.

Manifesting uniquely

Exotic disease incursions occur, manifest and spread in their own unique way across the world. Blue disease manifested differently in the US to other countries, and Fusarium was no different.

“In the US Fusarium was always associated with nematodes but what we were seeing was different and unique to Queensland,” Graham said.

Initial efforts centred around trying to identify it, ascertain where it had come from and how it was spread.

“We really don’t when it actually turned up or how long it was in the soil, but we didn’t see it until we grew the Siokra 1-4 variety,” Graham said.

“Siokra 1-4 was a marvellous variety, but we quickly identified that it was our enemy as it was not only susceptible but where it was planted it rapidly built up spores in the soil.

“It was being spread on our farm through our tail water return system and every field watered from the storage tank got it – some worse than others, but early on we weren’t seeing patterns.

“There were other growers who irrigated out of bores with no return water who had it spread across their farms and first-time cotton fields got it as well.”

Graham said this was baffling. He and other affected growers worked with University of Queensland Gatton who ran an exercise with them to set out a questionnaire for growers and interview them.

“The survey asked everything and anything, with the aim to look for commonalities: what was responsible and what propagated and spread it.

“They never found any, so where it came from and how it was initially spread remains a mystery.”

Breaking point

“I remember in the early 2000s – we had our cotton off to a flying start, we had water and seasonal conditions were good.

“Then just before Christmas we had a major rain event, triggering the Fusarium and we ended up losing a major part of that crop.

“That was the low point for me.

“We had ordered some new equipment to go into no till and I remember sitting on the tractor destroying the affected crop and thinking that now I would have to cancel the order.

“That was the low point. I was going to let the local machinery dealer down, and wouldn’t be in a position to go into other crops using minimum or no till.

“To get the crop to pre-flower then lose it through one adverse weather event was devastating.

“After that we decided we couldn’t take the risk anymore – so we grew sweet corn, sorghum and chickpeas.

“The risk was too great to grow cotton. It wasn’t just the loss of income but the mental anguish, it was too demoralising.”

Graham says getting to this point however, allowed him to accept the situation he was in and move onto alternatives.

“Don’t think today where it is at its darkest is where it is always going to be,” he says.

Famous for the wrong reasons

How farmers personally deal with an exotic incursion was discussed at the Plant Industries Biosecurity Symposium this year by banana and ginger growers. The personal costs both economically and mentally can be high, yet can be overcome.

Today under Owner Reimbursement Costs, growers can recoup some of the initial costs of destruction and mitigation, but there are other tolls the cotton industry is keen to address, known all too well by Graham and his family.

Firstly, it’s dealing with the attention. After the identification of Fusarium on his farm, all eyes were on Graham.

“During the mid-90s and early 2000s there were so many interviews and articles, people coming and going, but it is not something you want to be famous for,” Graham said.

“To start with there was nobody in the immediate community who didn’t know about it because the damage was quite visual.

“There was no hiding it, nor would we have tried to.

“I recognised it was a serious issue and I’m never one to ignore a problem and hope it will go away and fix itself. I’ve never seen that work.

“The sooner you face up to it the sooner you can get over it.”

Further to unwanted attention is the quarantine necessity, which has changed since the 90s.

“I didn’t get too hung up on these things, we worked around it.

“Our agronomist came to our farm last, and when we still had some relatively clean fields we used to clean the implements down and disinfect them before moving paddocks.

“Some people did try using two sets of gear – but I don’t think there was a documented case of this preventing spread.”

Dealing with forced change

More of an issue for Graham was what he says is the psychology of dealing with ‘unchosen change’ in life. The philosophy is generally based on a sequence of emotions: shock; denial; anger; depression; acceptance and integration.

“The first time I learned about it was when coal seam gas turned up – I was basically told what was going to happen on my farm, with or without it, which made me angry,” he says.

“I got stuck in the anger stage for the first three years and it burned me up.

“Then came depression, but finally acceptance: and the quicker you get there the quicker you can resolve and can get on with your life.

“I was turning into someone I didn’t want to be – and I had to deal with in a different way.

“That journey fitted the unchosen change that the discovery of Fusarium had on me. Looking back I wish I had have known about it as it would have helped a lot.

“The human aspect of it is that we contend with a lot of things and you get swallowed up by the injustice of it all and it can take a long time to get to the acceptance stage and start to look for a solution.

“This is a very important aspect and it’s great to hear coming out of these biosecurity exercises that it’s one that the cotton industry is aware of and looking to help us through.”

Outrunning the disease

Managing exotic diseases is a long-term prospect for researchers and farmers.

Many of the current strategies to manage the disease have been developed as a result of the project work carried out at Graham’s property ‘Cowan’. Specifically this includes the development of the ‘F.rank’ system to allow growers to compare resistance of varieties to Fusarium and the identification of germplasm with resistance to the pathogen. This led to the breeding and release by CSIRO of varieties with significantly improved resistance to Fusarium and with acceptable yield and quality characteristics. Graham’s willingness to offer his farm for trials, often at personal economic cost, has led to the identification of some agricultural practices, such as planting date and crop rotations, that reduce disease incidence.

This 2019-20 season will be the first since 1995 that screening trials for Fusarium won’t occur on the Clapham’s farms, due to lack of water for the trial crop. The first screening trial was undertaken right in the initial hot spot of about one hectare. Every year since there has been screening and other research of some sort.

“These trials have been a major part of our farm operation since 1995,” Graham said.

“In the very early days I was on speed dial to and from every nutritionist and snake oil salesman around – everything you know and things you don’t know about … they came to my door.

“We tried all manner of things that didn’t work, but what we learned was that if you have a nutrition problem that your plants are far more susceptible.”

Eventually Graham had to scale their cotton growing operations back as the disease became very severe in all their fields. Scaling back up resumed with the release of F-ranked varieties and management knowledge from the trials.

“We’ve still got Fusarium, it never goes away, but we now have the varieties to overcome it.

“We still see the odd affected plant, it still lurks and we can’t go back to growing things that are susceptible, that’s why we need to keep screening.”

So with more experience than most in dealing with an exotic disease, what is Graham’s advice?

“You have a responsibility to the industry to tell someone if you suspect something out of the ordinary, so industry knows and can halt the spread,” he says.

“You will go through a range of emotions, but the sooner they can be dealt with, the sooner we can get to solutions to deal with the issue and move on.

“It’s a funny thing to say but I have met the most fantastic people in this journey I wouldn’t have otherwise.

“Sometimes in adversity we meet people who change our lives and I have the utmost respect for them and what they have done.

“I actually look back on some of the experience with gratitude.”

Acknowledgement: This article was originally published in the Summer 2019-2020 edition of the Cotton Research and Development Corporation magazine Spotlight on Cotton R&D.