You can drive for miles on Queensland’s back roads and rarely pass another car. It’s tired out there, where the plains are brown and thirsty and the roads are long and ragged. Yet about 75 kilometres south of Roma on the Carnarvon Highway, there’s a tiny town that’s thriving thanks to Warroo Game Meats.
“We employ around 30 people from our local community, but we struggle to find enough staff in our small town,” founder and director, Les Mickelbourgh tells SBS.
You get the feeling that a lack of workforce is really the only thing holding Warroo Game Meats back from world domination.
That small town is Surat, once an important Cobb & Co changing station. These days, the 30, mostly Indigenous, people Les employs are roughly ten percent of Surat’s entire population.
"We see our employees and accredited harvesters who provide the product to our factory as our greatest asset," says Les. "But a shortage of housing makes it hard to get people to move to Surat.”
You get the feeling that a lack of workforce is really the only thing holding Warroo Game Meats back from world domination. The company is one of the leading producers of game meats in Queensland, supplying mainly kangaroo meat for both table and pet food supply.
“My family are proud Gunggari people and have been in the kangaroo industry for over 50 years,” Les says. “My mother and father were kangaroo shooters and then went on to be kangaroo skin traders.”
From pet food to table
When Les’s father passed away in the early nineties, he left a kangaroo skin business that by 2000 Les and his mother Betty had turned into a partnership in the “kangaroo meat game”. Betty had quickly moved the business from skins to pet food following her husband's death.
“Kangaroo skin was no longer worth any value,” Les says.
Over the past 18 years, further industry changes have forced Warroo Game Meats to be adaptable and innovative.
“My family are proud Gunggari people and have been in the kangaroo industry for over 50 years.”
While it’s estimated that around 70-60% of kangaroo meat becomes pet food, improved industry standards have been a big contributor to the growth in demand for kangaroo meat for human consumption.
“In the early days kangaroo meat was mainly regarded as a pet food,” Les says. “But now [it] has become a major part of the human consumption meat sector because of its healthy qualities.”
Sustainable kangaroo meat
Along with a solid health record, positve eco credentials have been a contributing factor in the rise in kangaroo meat as a preference for the table. Reduced GHG and nitrous oxide emissions, significantly lower water requirements, and what is considered a less stressful life lived in natural conditions, makes kangaroo meat a sustainable and ethical choice for many.
“Wild animals such as kangaroos are killed quickly, without the extended stress associated with industrialised farming, containment, and transportation to abattoirs,” writes Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Deakin University.
In addition, due to being Indigenous, kangaroos are well adapted to the demands of the Australian environment. They are able to survive extreme temperatures and and can go for long periods without water.
Feeling an obligation to both town and history, Les and Betty worked to the bone to keep the business going.
A land of flooding plains
The need to be flexible in Queensland's extremes was never more apparent to Les and Betty than when the Balonne River burst its banks from 2009-2011. Surat is generally a drought-stricken place, but flood waters forced the business to close for months at a time, three years in a row.
"Those three years of flooding had a devastating impact on our business," Les said.
Feeling an obligation to both town and history, the Micklebourgh family courageously worked to the bone to keep the business going. “We tried hard to help the staff out, but it was very difficult,” Les told Queensland Country Life. “We lobbied every local politician we knew of to try to get some help, but we never qualified for any assistance.”
Isolation costs the business
In the years since, Surat’s location has continued to provide hurdles to the business, with the latest being sky-rocketing diesel and electricity costs. The town’s isolation makes both a significant proportion of business costs. In addition, Surat sits inside a large expanse of traditional pastoral land, mostly grazing sheep and cattle. Lately there’s a discord between farming practices and giving Warroo Game Meats access to the kangaroo population.
“I guess the kangaroo industry is in our blood and we have evolved with it over the years.”
“Cluster fencing of properties stops the kangaroos and other native animals from migrating as they cannot get through these six-seven feet high fences,” says Les.
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Community is everything
Through it all, Warroo Game Meats has continued to grow and provide vital income and community to the town. As Les says, the core purpose of their business is to provide healthy and wholesome kangaroo products to the people of Australia, but a significant part of that means taking care of the company’s employees and local community.
“I guess the kangaroo industry is in our blood and we have evolved with it over the years,” Les muses. “All in all we are very proud with what we have accomplished in the 18 years, and we are very proud of what we give back to the local community to help support the local economy of this little town called Surat.”