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Life before the pandemic… hosting workshops, providing extension support, collaborating with industry partners, protecting the environment, facilitating one-on-one expert support, working as a close-knit team.

Even during a pandemic, the ‘show’ must go on

NQ Dry Tropics’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic was rapid, efficient and effective.

With almost 30 projects on the go, involving millions of dollars of landholder and government-invested resources, equipment and money, the company’s staff very quickly transitioned to working from home, hardly missing a beat in the roll-out of their programs.

Necessary changes, including the postponement of non-essential travel, and all public events, were made in consultation with funders, contractors, landholders and other stakeholders.

CEO Dr Scott Crawford said staff adapted quickly and efficiently to the new work arrangements.

“More than 50 employees working across two offices displayed professionalism and ingenuity to keep our projects on track while adhering to strict safety protocols based on government advice,” he said.

“They kept regional communities informed about the changes, and worked with partners to plan different ways to achieve objectives.”

Staff at NQ Dry Tropics adapted quickly to working from home, Senior Grazing Field Officer Linda Anderson pictured (above right) facilitating a virtual workshop with Grazing Naturally principal Dick Richardson (bottom right)

Monitoring, measuring and minor works continue

The primary objective was to maintain business continuity and effectiveness while ensuring the health and safety of employee, partners and landholders.

Dr Crawford said some critical activities, such as planning, monitoring, or construction, needed to be conducted at particular times during the year, or at different stages in some projects.

Staff worked quickly to identify those tasks affected by the COVID-related restrictions, and developed plans to manage them.

Together with funding partners, they plotted possible changes to project milestone dates, depending on the course the pandemic took, and came up with alternative ways to achieve results and be able to continue “kicking goals”.

Meetings went online, and workshops that pre-COVID would have been delivered to a relaxed gathering sitting on camp chairs under the shade of a gum tree, or in a hastily-cleared machinery shed, were delivered online.

“Zoom” was a new word in many landholders’ lexicons, but one with which they very quickly became familiar.

The innovative and positive approach meant that even if it wasn’t “business as normal”, the company was able to continue conducting business supported by a full complement of staff.

Some of the company’s usual activities did, however, become more complicated.

Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Principal Scientist Wayne Vogler (left) and Junction Creek grazier Alby Flood ensure COVID-safe distancing as they discuss weeds at Junction Creek.

Fish monitoring after a rain event was conducted, ensuring recently-installed fish traps were still in good working order.

Senior Project Officer Jaymie Rains conducting project site inspections at Mount Garnet.

Property visits — subject to landholder consent — were limited to two staff members, travelling in separate vehicles.

And there was paperwork. The new safety protocol required visitors and hosts to answer a series of questions related to health and recent travel before site visits could be scheduled.

Long-standing relationships based on mutual respect between NQ Dry Tropics staff and their landholder clients ensured site visits, project monitoring and planning work continued, always with an eye on the government safety guidelines.

Where possible, normal operations continued: Waterways, Wetlands and Coasts conducted fish monitoring after a rain event, and checked recently-installed fish traps; in-house training was run for extension officers to brush up on soil analysis skills, property visits for Sustainable Agriculture projects at grazing and sugar cane enterprises were made,  ongoing monitoring for Biodiversity projects at the far north of the Burdekin NRM Region and at the far south continued, and biocontrol work near Bowen did not miss a beat, as well as work on many other ongoing projects.

 

Dingo Park grazier Jeff Reid (centre) inspects the site where Alluvium land remediation experts Rohan Lucas and Vanessa Warrington will design streambank restoration work. aimed at preventing further erosion.

An “online life” becomes a normal life… especially for meetings

Several events were delivered successfully online, thanks to the efforts of presenters, participants and organisers.

More than a dozen graziers who had signed up to attend a series of Digging Deeper soil health workshops met for the first one at Fanning Downs near Macrossan in February.

But with COVID restrictions in place, the rest of the workshops, originally slated to be hosted on properties near Charters Towers and Woodstock, were delivered online via Zoom meetings.

The final of the weekly 90-minute sessions was delivered in late June.

Mr Hardwick adapted the course content to suit online learning, and Regional Agricultural Landcare Facilitator Peter Arthofer ensured participants were well prepared for a rewarding learning experience.

Mr Hardwick even came up with a series of hand signals so participants could interact in almost the same way as in a face-to-face workshop, signalling their agreement (or disagreement), or indicating they didn’t understand and wanted their tutor to back up and retrace a little bit.

Mr Arthofer said the Zoom sessions had been a success, despite concerns about variable internet speeds in the bush.

“We had about 15 or 16 participants logging in, but recorded the sessions to accommodate those who couldn’t attend,” he said.

“While some of the practical demonstrations were harder to deliver away from the paddock, other theoretical aspects of the course, such as understanding soil tests, were easier because David was able to share his screen and explain the results.”

Other online events were similarly successful and they included:

  • Grazing Team Leader Linda Anderson and Agricultural Ecologist Dick Richardson delivering a session on developing dry season grazing plans for seven landholders as part of the GRASS project.
  • The Landholders Drivers Change team delivering its inaugural ‘Ladies of the Land’ networking event. Seventeen women joined the online conference to discuss issues, share experiences, and acknowledge female contributions to the development and success of rural communities.

The inaugural Ladies of the Land event was conducted online.

The Digging Deeper workshops proved to be very successful in the online format.

Maintaining staff morale in home offices

Staff meetings continued to keep the ship’s company informed, but they also became a venue for having a bit of fun with backgrounds and themes.

With staff working remotely, team leaders and managers were conscious of maintaining morale.

The kitchen at NQ Dry Tropics HQ has always been a hive of activity in the morning and at lunchtime, with animated debates and the important business of solving the daily crossword.

The Social Club came up with plenty of initiatives designed to promote team unity and to provide opportunities to connect.

The ‘Tropical Friday’ tradition was maintained, with pictures sent in from home, and bingo, trivia, even murder mystery events, were a chance for staff to let off steam after work.

NQ Dry Tropics’ Finance Officer Linda Bahr.

The first weekly all-staff meetings on Zoom were relatively staid affairs, until themes were introduced. They included: hippie, goth, ocker, sports, and ‘dream job’.

Meanwhile in the NQ Dry Tropics  ‘engine room’ the Corporate Services team adapted its methods to ensure staff, landholders and contractors were paid, and contracts and work orders signed and delivered.

Finance Officer Linda Bahr said new systems had to be implemented at short notice to keep things running smoothly.

“I thought business might slow down during this period, but it’s been busier than ever,” she said.

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