Wrangling wild camels in country Western Australia is a long way from a small town in Germany for one dairy farmer with a difference.
Dr Max Bergmann is living in Morangup, near Toodyay, with his wife and young family taming wild camels for his camel dairy.
With just 2-3 per cent vision, the legally blind farmer, Paralympian and researcher uses innovation and technology to drive his business.
After studying a PhD in Plant Physiology Dr Bergmann moved into a life on the land.
“I’ve always done what I love…including the camels now,” he said.
“I just really like farming and I love driving the tractor.
“Just because I’m sight impaired doesn’t mean you can’t do it. There are ways around it and the technology is absolutely incredible.”
Dr Bergmann was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when he was 8 years old and his sight has been degenerating since.
“I’ve got a blind spot in the centre of my eye, and I’ve got only peripheral vision left,” he said.
Dr Bergmann sources wild camels from the outback in central Australia, and trains them to be milked in his mobile dairy.
Most of the milk is used in a range of skin care products as well as freeze dried powder and some for drinking.
Dr Bergmann said he often gets asked how he works with camels.
He said it requires planning, structure and trust.
“I think the camels definitely connect to me differently to a sighted person,” he said.
“I just trust them. I think I’ve got that internal trust and I’m not afraid. And I think they sense that I might not be able to see properly but because my posture, my whole movement around them is quite reassuring I guess, and I have never had a real issue.”
Dr Bergmann said he uses what technology is available as well as memorising movements around the mobile milking system.
“Exactly three steps to the left, one step forward and then you touch this rope, you do this, it’s just getting used to it,” he said.
“Obviously what I don’t like if things are not in the right place, then all of a sudden I look like a blind person.”
He has also set up systems to help him navigate around the property.
“We put large white corflute blue signs on all our fences and I put them strategically,” he said.
He has had a GPS auto-steering control system installed into the tractor to navigate the farm.
“When you’re on the bigger machines and we do the cropping, you have GPS technology that you know, you could put literally put a monkey there these days, you just need to press a button and the tractor is perfectly straight,” he said.
“I always say it’s a good time to be blind because of technology.
“I’ve done my PhD on a computer that has a screen reader you know, the technology is just fantastic. “
Sometimes though, the simple ideas are the best.
Dr Bergmann said designing Australia’s first mobile camel dairy required some innovative thinking.
“I’m blind, legally blind, it’s quite hard for me to come up with plans and drawings, so when we designed that system, I actually had to imagine it,” he said.
“I’ve got this vision like I’m always ‘I’m a blind guy, but I’ve got a vision’ so I had to come up with the whole system, how it’s working and the way I’ve done it was by actually playing with my kids.
“We used some Legos, and we sort of set up the yards and the milking system and ran through the different scenarios over and over again.”
Drive for sustainability
Dr Bergmann said the mobile milking platform came about through a desire to be more sustainable.
“We created a decentralized system, so rather than taking the cows to the dairy, we now trying to take the dairy to the cows,” he said.
“It is this innovation that allows the camels to stay in the pasture one hundred per cent of the time.
Dr Bergmann has a special bond with his camels and said they have unfairly earned a reputation for being bad-tempered spitters.
“I always call them the gentle giants because they’re so warm hearted,” he said.
“They’re not flight animals, so they’re quite different to horses or cows.
“The whole psychology is more like a dog, so it’s like imagine if you like dogs and you have hundreds of them.”
“They come up to you and some of them, you know, if you get a real mate, they come and
cuddle …and it’s just great being around them.”
While the day to day running of a camel farm is hectic, Max finds his motivation and determination to continue every day when out in the paddocks.
“If your favourite camel comes up and rests their head on your shoulder, you just close your eyes for a moment, it’s just that magic that they’re so calm ..that just transfers into you. That gives me the feeling you’re doing the right thing. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Chris Kerr is an ABC Regional Storyteller Scholarship winner, a partnership initiative with International Day of People with Disability.