Slim pickings on offer for hort labour

Slim pickings for hort labour

Horticulture
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WITH the horticulture industry expected to be short some 26,000 workers to meet the demand for fruit and vegetable picking across the next six months, sectors are looking hard at their strategies to attract workers.

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HARD WORK: Venus Fruit's Unitech supervisor Harrison Walkowiak at work in the Riverland, where employers are crying out for labour.

HARD WORK: Venus Fruit's Unitech supervisor Harrison Walkowiak at work in the Riverland, where employers are crying out for labour.

WITH the horticulture industry expected to be short some 26,000 workers to meet the demand for fruit and vegetable picking across the next six months, sectors are looking hard at their strategies to attract workers.

One option is school leavers, particularly those from rural and remote areas, with last week's budget including a provision to make those who earn more than $15,000 working on a farm eligible to qualify for Youth Allowance or Abstudy.

Isolated Children's Parents' Association Australia president Alana Moller and tertiary portfolio holder Kate Thompson say the move has merit, but they want to ensure it meant all agricultural roles, such as grain harvests, and not just horticulture.

"On the whole, we do think there will be good take up from rural and remote students applying for this pathway to Youth Allowance and Abstudy to prove their independence, as they are used to regional living and agricultural work," Ms Thompson said.

She said those contemplating a gap year were aware hospitality jobs were in short supply and this temporary pathway "makes it workable to gain independence".

We did think there would be more of a sudden impact when COVID hit, but it has been in more of a gradual process and we are starting to feel it now towards this time of the year, as the workers are moving on and no new ones are coming to the area. - HELEN AGGELETOS

The picking of early stonefruit varieties is expected to start as early as next week and Summerfruits SA executive officer Tim Greiger says growers have spent the past few months exploring every avenue to source labour in a tight market with this to continue for the coming months.

He said government initiatives, including allowing holiday-maker visa holders to remain in the country, were welcome, but limited.

"Every little bit of assistance industry and government can deliver to labour is welcome," he said.

"It looks like a good harvest this year with good set and production, but we desperately need the labour."

Mr Grieger said this need to find good workers was an additional stress on top of the usual situation of growing food for the country.

SA Wine Industry Association chief executive Brian Smedley said grapegrowers had begun seeking out employees at least a month to six weeks earlier than they normally would, in order to have alternative strategies, if needed, for the 2021 vintage.

"We're trying to make sure we've got a pool of people so we don't get stuck asking what's plan B," he said.

Mr Smedley said it was not unusual for vintage, which begins in the Riverland in January, to coincide with fruit picking, but he said the shortage of backpackers could make a difference.

He said the opening of more state borders was welcome news, but other industries say as borders are reopening, some workers are preparing to move on.

Riverland-based fruit packer Venus Citrus' marketing manager Helen Aggeletos said both the company and their growers had been affected by the shortage of backpackers and visa workers because of COVID-19.

They pack fruit for 40 growers across the Riverland and usually have up to 90 staff in the peak period.

"Backpackers and islander workers make up about 55 per cent of our workforce and we are down about 25pc of that," she said.

"We are just not getting the travellers coming back and forth.

"With the backpackers that are here, in the past 6-7 weeks, they've started planning to or are moving on, particularly now that the borders are opening.

"Plus we are slowly coming out of our peak period, so they are moving on to new employment, such as Viterra harvest jobs locally or harvests in other states, such as Tas.or even travelled home, through the NT.

"We would normally let some of our workforce go around this time of year, but we are losing more than the normal tapering off - so we are short staffed at the moment."

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Ms Aggeletos said thei growers had also been "feeling it" this past month.

"It has been a struggle for most of the season, but obviously picking time has been hard without the volume of workers needed," she said.

"Some have worked together to rotate workers across the region as the fruit ripens, which worked relatively well, but it took longer to get the product off.

"We would have normally finished navel oranges two weeks ago, when the export market closed and valencia oranges started coming on, but we still have navels trickling in.

"We are still exporting a little bit, but some of the key markets have moved over the valencias, so any leftover navels are being sold domestically.

"We did think there would be more of a sudden impact when COVID hit, but it has been in more of a gradual process and we are starting to feel it now towards this time of the year, as the workers are moving on and no new ones are coming to the area."

Ms Aggeletos was sceptical about the federal government's new student initiative.

"It won't really benefit us, but may help the stonefruit industry or other varieties/products," she said.

"We haven't seen initiatives like this work in the past, where people are attracted to come here from the city, but we also haven't seen a student initiative before, so I am not sure how it will go.

"We had a bit of interest when COVID first kicked in and we had applications out for our peak period, but then from about 20 that applied, maybe one would rock up, so I have my doubts, particularly with jobkeeper and jobseeker still in play."

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