Farmers are slashing the size of strawberry crops or not planting at all out of fear fruit will rot on the ground amid a picker shortage that is expected to jack up prices at the supermarket.
- About 7,000 people are needed to harvest Queensland’s strawberry crop this winter
- COVID-19 travel restrictions have resulted in a major shortfall of available labour
- Farmers are calling on students to consider working while studying online
Travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have meant a massive shortfall in farm labour, usually made up of working holidaymakers or backpackers.
They pick 80 per cent of fruit in Australia, Queensland Strawberry Growers Association president Adrian Schulz said.
In the Moreton Bay, Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg regions alone, 7,000 people would be needed to harvest the strawberry crop this winter, he said.
“There are a lot of farmers who are very worried,” he said.
“I’ve already reduced the number of plants we’re going to grow by 30 to 35 per cent.
“They [strawberries] might be expensive because if we don’t get the people to pick them, the supply is going to be greatly reduced.”
Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the number of working travellers in Australia had shrunk from 160,000 to about 40,000 since COVID-19 emerged last year.
“Right across this country there has been a shortage,” he said.
“We’re trying to plan for this season but we’re also trying to plan a strategy for next year and beyond.”
Students offered flexibility to lure them in
Students and school leavers are being targeted by growers in a job drive to ensure this year’s crop is picked and not wasted.
Mr Schulz said students, particularly those who could study online, may have the flexibility to take on temporary, seasonal work.
“We encourage those [people] to get out and get a job on a strawberry farm and they can study online,” he said.
“If a student has to go in and do a face-to-face class one day a week, that’s something we can work around.”
There is also opportunity for those on international student visas, with working hour restrictions temporarily relaxed for those taking a job in agriculture.
According to the Home Affairs website, the department and Australian Border Force “will take a flexible approach” but only for certain industries.
Chilean student Natalie Ayala decided to stay when Australia closed its borders.
“In South America the situation is worse.”
Ms Ayala spent a few weeks working on Mr Schulz’s farm.
“For me it is a new experience [and] if you travel the country, you need to open yourself up to new things,” she said.
Influx of Pacific labour force stifled by ‘bureaucracy’
Queensland’s strawberry growers are calling for urgent action to resolve the bottleneck that has stopped thousands of Pacific Island workers from coming to Australia to work on farms.
Mr Schulz said quarantine restrictions and caps on international arrivals were slowing the flow of arrivals.
“However we [would be] bringing people in from countries that do not have COVID.”
Mr Littleproud said 25,000 people from across the Pacific were waiting to come to Australia, however state governments were impeding their arrivals.
“We can stamp the visas but only after state governments give the public health seal of approval,” he said.
Mr Schulz would like to see the federal and state governments work together and called the quarantine conditions “onerous”.
“They’ve allowed six sites only in Queensland for on-farm quarantine [with] a minimum of 30 people and a maximum of 80 in any particular facility,” he said.
“That’s great for the big farms but not good for the small and medium farms.”
Mr Schulz said while in quarantine, people must work but be separated from others with other conditions in place.
“You have to embed your own supervisors with these people for that 14-day period and you need to get the Queensland police on site,” he said.
“It’s very onerous for small to medium farms to manage that sort of bureaucracy.”
Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said the government had brought more than 930 workers onto the state’s farms under the federal government’s Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program, with hundreds more due very soon.
“This is a federal government program, and processing times for workers can vary significantly because of issues affecting processing in their home countries,” he said.
“The state government understands the urgency of getting more workers on farms.”