Leading Hand, OAI - Rod Hicks

Monday, November 26, 2012

As the Leading Hand at the Orange Agricultural Institute (OAI) Rod Hicks has seen the effect that some of the most serious plant and animal diseases can have on farms in NSW. But on the flip-side, he also sees, and participates in the very research that contains, prevents and eradicates those very conditions.

OAI is a research facility within the NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) and relies on people like Rod to keep its research farm ticking along smoothly.

According to the DPI itself, the OAI's major objectives “are to improve the quality, profitability and sustainability of deciduous fruit, wool and sheep meat production, minimise the impacts of weeds in crops, pastures and natural ecosystems, reduce salinity through improved management of recharge areas, reduce the incidence of diseases in domestic livestock, and limit the effects of vertebrate pests on production and the environment.”

So on any one day Rod could be helping shear the site’s research sheep flock, harvesting a research wheat crop, fixing fences or going about general orchard maintenance.

Having grown up on an orchard in Orange, the latter is a job Rod has years of experience with. His family came out from England in the late 1890s and eventually settled in the Orange area where they established an orchard. “I suppose, growing up in that environment, and having first hand experience in farming has been helpful in my work,” he says, “but the kind of farming and biosecurity work I do now is so varied that I need to be across a whole range of agricultural industries.”

In addition to his general farm work, Rod is also a key member of the Biosecurity division’s first response team. “While most of my work is around the farm here at OAI, I also need to be ready to drop everything and help out if ever there’s a suspected outbreak”.

Over the years Rod has worked closely with the department’s first response team on everything from Horse Flu or Avian Influenza, to Myrtle Rust. During the Equine Influenza outbreak of 2007-2008, he spent eight months as site superviser for Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse. This meant that from August right through to March he was on site, containing and quarantining the entire area, spraying vehichles and ensuring no horse products came in or out.

During the NSW outbreak of Newcastle Disease in the late 90's Rod spent a number of months on the Central Coast near Mangrove Mountain. “My role there was to contain the situation, ensure the affected birds were killed humanely and that the shed was cleaned according to protocol.”

Australia has seen five outbreaks of Newcastle Disease in chickens between 1976 and 1997, and thanks to people like Rod and the DPI’s Biosecurity teams, in all cases the outbreaks were contained and eradicated within months and there was no impact on human health. And because contingency plans against possible future outbreaks are constantly being reviewed and upgraded, Rod and his team do regular training exercises and courses.

And it’s not only animal diseases Rod works on. Plant biosecurity is another major element of his and the Department’s work, so when Myrtle Rust was reported to be occurring in and around Gosford, Rod wasted no time getting to the area and spent a number of months there, visiting nurseries and testing for affected trees. Myrtle Rust is a fungus that affects native Australian trees like bottle brush, tea tree and eucalyptus. It infects the leaves of these trees and can ultimately kill them.

“This job certainly gives me something new to do and think about every day,” Rod says, “but it’s also incredibly rewarding as I know I’m participating in a practical sense, in making things better for our farmers.”


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