Border blue casts doubt on harvest

Border blue casts doubt on harvest

NSW Farmers President James Jackson said he was stunned to hear of the reversal just hours after Premier Dominic Perrottet promised to scrap hotel quarantine.

“We had been calling for cheaper and more efficient quarantine arrangements heading into a big harvest season, and were relieved by the Premier’s announcement,” Mr Jackson said.

“Now we’re left shaking our heads. Plants ready for harvest don’t care about political finger-pointing or vaccination rates; our farmers desperately need workers and this is just another barrier to getting the help they need.

“Both the state and federal governments urgently need to sit down and sort this out, so we can get on with the job of harvesting our crops and helping rebuild the economy.”

NSW Farmers President James Jackson
NSW Farmers President James Jackson

NSW Farmers has been raising the issue of worker mobility since the pandemic started, and more recently it has been calling on state and federal governments to put in place arrangements that would facilitate worker mobility while still meeting appropriate health protocols

This includes the introduction of on-farm quarantine pilot and the establishment of a working group to work through the relevant arrangements and appropriate health protocols.

“There is no one silver bullet to this solution,” Mr Jackson said. “We recognise the work of the NSW Government and Minister Marshall in developing the Ag Workers Code and subsidising hotel quarantine, but there remains an enormous demand for labour that is not being filled.”

Harvest labour shortage remains top priority for farmers

The scrapping of hotel quarantine requirements from November 1 has been welcomed by NSW Farmers.

“This is a positive step but our farmers are still in a very desperate situation. They are trying to source workers for harvest, and even though the removal of quarantine will help, we are concerned the workers won’t arrive in time,” Mr Jackson said.

“The state government has opened a window to the world and now we need harvest workers to go to the farms where they’re needed.”

Last week, the Deputy Premier Paul Toole announced More than 4,500 staff from the Department of Regional NSW, including Local Land Services and the NSW Department of Primary Industries would be given one week’s paid ‘harvest leave’ to help out with a busy summer harvest season.

“These workers can volunteer to help out with any harvest, anywhere in the state – from harvesting blueberries in Coffs Harbour, oranges and table grapes in the Riverina and Murray, to cherries in the Central West or helping bring in a bumper grain harvest,” Mr Toole said.

Harvest workers are needed now for the north coast blueberry picking season.

The Public Service Association has lodged a dispute over the plan.

Mr Jackson said any efforts to bolster the harvest workforce were welcome, but more workers would be needed before summer was over.

“We’ve been highlighting the dire need to improve access to harvest workers for weeks now, and this will certainly help, but cherry growers, for example, need workers for five weeks, not one,” Mr Jackson said.

“There is a shortfall of at least 10,000 harvest workers this season, and that’s because of the COVID restrictions we’ve had in place.

“Now that vaccination rates are rapidly rising and we have access to rapid antigen testing, the government needs to vastly improve harvest worker mobility if we are to have any hope of avoiding waste and lost income.

“I’m hopeful the government will also consider measures like the on-farm quarantine pilot we proposed – sooner rather than later.”

NSW cherry harvest looms

Cherry growers in NSW have taken to social media and paid advertising to get workers for the harvest season.

The NSW cherry harvest season starts in late October in the Hillston and Narromine areas, late November around Mudgee and Young and early December in the Orange region.

Farmer Fiona Hall, from BiteRiot near Orange, said growers have had some success in generating interest and inquiries about seasonal work opportunities.

“We all have been very active on social media and it seems to have worked. People are ringing up and putting their names down,” Fiona said. “It’s looking like we should be okay for workers on our farm, but I am still not overly confident.

“There are those that say they will be there, but don’t turn up when harvest begins, which is what happened last year.”

Cherry farmer Fiona Hall and joined other growers in using social media and advertising to attract harvest labour

Fiona said local grower groups have taken a coordinated approach to develop advertising strategies to promote schemes like the Federal Government’s relocation incentive program.

“Fortunately, it’s not a massive crop this year. We did have good blossom and good weather when the blossoms were out, so it will still be a decent harvest. What we need now is for it to dry out so we can get the tractors out into the paddock and have a dry harvest.”

Farmer Fiona Hall, from BiteRiot near Orange

NSW Farmers Horticulture Committee Chair and cherry grower Guy Gaeta said the backpacker void is a stress point for all fruit and vegetable growers.

In February 2020 there were 143,042 backpackers in Australia. That number has shrunk to just 32,000.

The cherry harvest season in NSW starts in late October in the Hillston and Narromine areas

 “We need the borders open. Every year we have seasonal workers come from Queensland but they are not going to come if they cannot get back home,” Mr Gaeta told The Daily Telegraph this week.

“And we need backpackers. I don’t know what they do on Bondi Beach but when they come here they work hard because they want the money – they can earn up to $500 a day.”

NSW Farmers Horticulture Committee Chair Guy Gaeta

“It would break my heart to have to leave good fruit on the trees,” he said. “The people who will end up paying are Australian shoppers because there will be less supply so the price will go up.”

NSW Farmers has joined the National Farmers Federation in an urgent call for on-farm quarantine arrangements to alleviate urgent worker shortages.

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