Australian farmers are faced with the difficult decision to abandon their crops after border closures prevented workers from entering the country during peak harvest season.
State borders may be reopening now, but the expected drop in production due to labor shortages is projected to increase the price of summer fruits and vegetables by 15-25%, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Sciences and Economics.
Stanthorpe strawberry and avocado grower Nathan Baronio has already abandoned a six-and-a-half-acre block of 30,000 strawberries due to understaffing and expects more cuts without more workers.
“They should have brought another 95,000 baskets of strawberries, which at $ 2.50 a basket, you’re looking at around $ 240,000,” he said.
“As you cut more and more, you’re starting to get into those higher-profitable blocks. When you get to the higher-profitable blocks and you’re going to cut them, then you’re in a serious financial loss.”
For Lakeland banana farmer Paul Inderbitzin in far north Queensland, that reality is fast approaching. He believes regional areas like his will have a difficult time continuing next year with current conditions.
“Right now there is a shortfall in our current number of workers for the amount of work that needs to be done,” he said.
“I could use five other people on this property of 25. We are not a big farm, but that’s a fifth of my workforce that is not there and how are we going to take over and do that?”
As the season tracks the harvest through New South Wales and into Victoria early next year, hundreds of growers will also be forced to consider their options during their peak period if the government does not intervene.
Although a two-year commitment of $ 17.4 million was made in the Federal Budget to offer domestic workers a $ 6,000 reimbursement of assistance to relocate to regional areas for work, industry bodies believe that making arrangements to allow domestic workers to foreign workers returning to the country should be a priority.
AUSVEG National Public Affairs Manager Tyson Cattle says there are at least 4,000 workers ready to go to the Pacific Island nations, but that responsibility for quarantine between the state and federal governments prevented them from providing farms the much needed relief.
“We believe the federal government needs to seriously reconsider its position on developing a travel bubble for the Pacific nations … and begin bringing these people from the Pacific nations who are ready to work and free from COVID.” , said.
What frustrates Cattle the most is the fact that the industry has been flagging the problem to the government since the start of the pandemic.
“We knew this iceberg was essentially about to hit very hard, particularly in mid to late October and it would get worse for a few months, and to be honest that’s exactly what is happening.”
Without the arrival of international workers, relying on local workers to fill the gaps seems increasingly unlikely, as Inderbitzen says its doors are not “being knocked down by Australians or backpackers trying to find work.”
For Baronio, it’s the question of how many workers he would have to overhire if they are inexperienced.
“In a typical peak year, I need 200 workers, but if I have an inexperienced staff, I will potentially need 400 workers,” he said.
“From a long-term perspective, we need more Australians to get back into these jobs. We need them to have experience and get back into loving farm work.”
Growcom’s policy and advocacy manager Richard Shannon says securing a dedicated and skilled workforce in the future has never been more important.
“As an industry, we deserve a skilled and motivated workforce. And that’s an issue we’ve been highlighting with the government for years, and COVID-19 has put it in really sharp focus.”
With Christmas fast approaching, Baronio is aware that the already high demand for fresh produce will only increase with more Australians spending the holiday period at home than abroad.
“It’s very tough on all of our teams and my hat is off to every single person who works for me or anyone and everyone who tries to do what they can to get the job done. And we need help, because we want to do a good job,” he said. .
“We want to have a good product, we want them to pick it all up, and we’re breaking our asses trying to do it and you’re chasing your tail in some stages and it’s a horrible feeling, it really is.”