Cathy Downie has been picking grapes in Mildura, in Victoria’s Sunraysia region, for just over a week, but has learnt quickly what makes a good bunch.

Key points:

  • There’s a shortage of around 26,000 workers in horticulture left by international travellers who can’t get into the country
  • A lack of harvest workers will result in a forecast drop in fruit production by 17 per cent and vegetable production by around 2 per cent
  • Federal and Victorian governments offer cash grants to entice people to work on farms but few have signed up

“You do what they say is ‘trimming’. So you take off the little ones, the dead ones, the ones that are bruised, tidy up your bunch, and then just put it in the bucket and start the process again,” she said.

The 57-year-old spent the past 30 years living and working in Sydney as a recruitment consultant until she lost her job due to the pandemic.

“I was sitting around wondering what am I going to do now and I thought what better way to travel around Australia, picking fruit and vegies,” she said.

“I took advantage of getting my super out and bought a camper van so I don’t even need to worry about accommodation.”

Ms Downie is part of a growing number of grey nomads taking up seasonal harvest jobs, partly lured by the chance to change their lifestyle and travel.

“Just hearing some of the stories from farmers around Australia and how much they relied on backpackers from overseas, that really resonated with me,” Ms Downie said.

“I’m in a Facebook group of 11,000 women travelling solo around Australia and I just encourage them to take up and do what I’m doing,” she said.

woman sittin gon the edge of a campervan. behind her is a fridge with photos on the door, microwave

Cathy Downie is part of a growing number of travelling nomads picking produce along Australia’s harvest trail.(

ABC Mildura Swan Hill: Alexandra Treloar

)

Citrus farmer Kevin Cock from Buronga in south-west New South Wales said grey nomads were a reliable part of his workforce for the past 10 years.

“Most of them set off around Australia, they land in the caravan park, you put your name in there and see if anyone wants work,” Mr Cock said.

He said with Australia’s international border closed the older worker are helping to fill jobs once taken by backpackers and workers from the Pacific.

“Most of them come out having never had experience, so you’ve got to do a bit of training. But they are skilled people,” he said.

“I’ve had accountants, I’ve had nurses, I’ve had engineers, I’ve had the lot. They’re dedicated.”

Cash incentives falling short

The Victorian government offers a $2,500 cash bonus to entice domestic workers to pick fruit and vegetables.

The federal government is also encouraging Aussies to move to the regions by offering up to $6,000 to cover things like transport and accommodation, but few have taken it up.

“The last update we had about the federal government’s relocation assistance program was about 500 people,” said NFF Horticulture Council executive officer Tyson Cattle.

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Horticulture industry facing a critical labour shortage.

He said the incentives were generous, but more needed to be done to attract a domestic workforce to farming.

“There’s plenty of money available but it has always been a hard one for the industry to crack, a domestic audience in terms of harvest labour,” Mr Cattle said.

Pickers at work amongst grapevines.

ABARES confirmed that labour shortages in horticulture have led to a fall in production across the country.(

ABC Rural

)

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) confirmed this week that labour shortages in the horticulture sector have led to a fall in horticulture production across the country.

According to ABARES, the lack of supply in overseas harvest workers will result in a forecast drop in fruit production by 17 per cent and vegetable production by around 2 per cent.

Meanwhile, Cathy Downie said she had not only found a new career, but a whole new way of life.

“I could say to anyone out there give it a go. You get your exercise, you’re working outside in the fresh air, you get money for food and petrol. I love it,” she said.

“This is my lifestyle now so I would say to people give it a go, you won’t look back.”

Nomads, retirees, and jobless city folk make an effort to bolster harvest picker workforce
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