After my relatively restrained column on Mycoplasma bovis appeared last week, MPI's head of Biosecurity NZ Roger Smith felt compelled to respond in writing.
It astounded me he found time to stop working on the nationally critical issue of M. bovis to concentrate on having a personal crack at me. Given the myriad media commentaries on MPI's lacklustre response to the disease, including their lack of transparency, one can only wonder why he chose to single me out for special attention. Did I hit a nerve?
I suspect he bet the farm on the fact that many farmers – dairy, in particular – have a Christmas card list that does not include me. Years of taking them on over our degraded waterways means enemies have been made.
He banked on getting them easily on side. But Smith may be as surprised as I've been by the number of farmers who've made contact after reading my column. Some of them are the very same folks who, in the recent past, would've enjoyed watching me being slowly hung, drawn and quartered.
To a person, those farmers expressed appreciation for my take on M. bovis, before launching into all the reasons why they also feel MPI has been anything but transparent.
They spoke of strained relationships with neighbours, family, and government reps, and all this on the farms without M. bovis. Imagine those with it, watching their livelihoods torn to shreds.
It looks and feels a lot like a divide and rule tactic to some. Rumour and innuendo are rife, and because MPI repeatedly parrots the need for privacy regarding infected farms, everybody suspects everybody.
Some of them have been asking MPI since January about how to handle stock movements on June 1 (or 'Gypsy Day') – the day cattle begin being moved en masse around the country between dairy and dry stock farms.
With just days to go, those with (thus far) healthy stock, are still waiting for instructions or, at least, some sort of plan from MPI.
Others talked about the testing regime, how they don't trust it, and how it's all kept totally in-house. It's regarded as slow, unreliable, and MPI haven't allowed other commercial testing labs to assist or explore alternative methods for screening, which would speed things up immensely.
On top of that, MPI red tape blocks the access to infected samples to allow testing of positive biological tissue to extract the DNA of M. Bovis.
Massey University have said they could develop a test as soon as August, enabling farmers to manage the disease on site by checking cows directly. Current methods need to go via a lab and, along with delays, have an abundance of false positive and negative results making interpretation confusing. One would think it's a no-brainer.
In his response, Smith mentioned the decision-making partnership involving DairyNZ, Beef+Lamb New Zealand, Federated Farmers, Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand, and the Meat Industry Association.
One can only wonder if some of those same "partners" felt blindsided by Smith at a Select Committee briefing two weeks ago. Sources tell me that having been fed only scraps of information for months, suddenly Smith was armed with statistics, firm numbers, and a comprehensive map of what was happening on farms, and where. Its reliability? Arguable, at best.
By now, I'm speculating that even the minister must be wondering whether his officials are giving him decent data or a bum steer. Damien O'Connor is looking bowed and beaten, and when the storm clouds eventually clear, let's hope he can muster the anger he's going to need to have a hard look at his ministry and make some overdue changes.
I believe Smith was rattled by my column, but that's irrelevant to me. He's part of a huge government department, and I am but a walnut. What's relevant is the question of why he used a sledgehammer to crack me. It's not logical if, as he asserts, I'm way off track.
Because, from where I'm sitting, I see a lack of transparency. If Smith's right and I'm wrong, then it has to be incompetence. Or a combination of both. Take your pick.
In the meantime, I've got a tip for Roger Smith and MPI's large PR team. Get back to work, and stop worrying about walnuts.