Farm worker shortage a concern, but families will pitch in
Some Gympie region producers are fighting the ‘perfect storm’, with some in a race against time to secure workers and nervous about what impact the next COVID shut down will have.
Queensland‘s $32m in lost crops from the COVID labour shortage is expected to rapidly increase when avocados, vegetables, bananas and berries are due for harvest over the next month or two.
A Department of Agriculture analysis of seasonal labour supply and demand over 12 months from August last year identified the Wide Bay as a “pinch point” in labour availability.
In Gympie, avocado farmer Kate Groves is expecting to start her harvest at the middle to end of February and will be relying on part-time staff and family this year.
“While there is a shortage of pickers I personally think I will be ok for harvest labour,” she said. “Avocado don’t ripen until you pick them, to a point, much better than most other crops that have to picked when they are ready. I have a bit more time than a tomato grower, for example.
“I do hope I am not looking for harvest staff, people are paying cash per bin at the end of each day to get their stuff picked!”
Conditions in Gympie this year have been good compared to the past 3-4 years, mainly thanks to storms delivering rain without destructive wind and hail.
“They are forecasting good crops in most Queensland growing regions this year, (so I am) hoping prices remain ok for the grower. They also will have labour shortage to contend with. My main concern is shut down of major cities that I supply fruit to. When they shut pubs, restaurants, airplanes etc, growers lose 50% of their market.”
Industry groups fearing a lack of workers will decimate the sector have launched a new FarmReady Hub in a desperate effort to match workers with farmers.
Wide Bay’s biggest demand for farm labour is in August with the winter vegetable harvest, and May, with pineapples, the end of the orchard fruit harvest, and macadamias. The region has an estimated average annual seasonal worker demand of 3000-3400 FTE’s for the 12 months to July 2021, with lower demand across the summer months. Significant commodities for the region, in terms of labour demand are, strawberries, blueberries, citrus, avocados, mangoes and macadamias.
The new FarmReady Hub prepares prospective agriculture employees for farm work and opens career pathways across the industry.
Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance Project Manager Diana Saunders said up to 5100 casual workers were needed across Queensland each month.
“The sector is changing and people should give it a go,” she said.
“It‘s a good way to get outdoors, experience the regions and earn some money.”
Queensland Farmers‘ Federation CEO Georgina Davis said labour disruption caused by COVID-19 was becoming more concerning.
“Demand for casual labour is expected to peak around March,” she said.
“Queensland farmers have already reported $31m of crop losses across a variety of commodities.
“There is a significant amount of work being done to find solutions, including encouraging Australians to consider farm work, however the industry is diverse, and many job applicants are underprepared.”
Dr Davis said the FarmReady Hub would ensure new employees arriving at the farm gate were prepared for an agricultural job, health and safety and biosecurity requirements.
She said the hub would also make it easier for farmers to take on workers by reducing paperwork and basic training.
A bumper avocado crop anticipated this year has prompted Blackbutt farmer Anthony Beutel to start his search for workers early.
Despite the crop not ready for harvest until April and May, Mr Beutel said he had “started the ball rolling” looking for people.
“We‘d usually use backpackers but there’s none of those
“I am a bit worried. It is a concern because if the (avocado) price is going to be there and the crop is going to be ready we‘ll need to get that fruit off.”
It is uncharted territory for Mr Beutel, who was able to harvest last year‘s drought-ravaged crop using the few backpackers who remained in Australia.
“This year we‘ve got a pretty reasonable crop on so we’re more in need of labour this year than we have been in the past two or three,” he said.
It comes as Agriculture Minister David Littleproud calls for the state government to extend the Pacific Island Labour Scheme beyond March 4 to allow workers to remain in Queensland.