Local vegetable growers could be forced to watch their produce rot in the paddock due to a labour shortage in the Lindenow Valley.
It’s nearing the pointy end of the season where crops need to be harvested but the traditional seasonal workforce used to ‘top-up’ the year-round local labour force is stuck overseas, despite those countries being COVID-19 free.
Organic grower, Kane Busch, of Busch Organics, would usually have 25 people on the books but right now has just nine, while Keith Ingram said Bonaccord was looking for 50 to 60 people, and Bulmers 12 to 15.
“Our first celery crop will need picking in a week’s time and this paddock will be ready in three weeks,” Mr Busch said.
“Our phones ran hot in May when COVID-19 caused employment issues and then once JobSeeker and JobKeeper were announced the phone stopped,” Mr Busch said.
“There is no back-up plan. We’ll just have to get what crop off we can.
“Anyone out there who wants work, feel free to get in touch. The minimum is $24.80 an hour.”
He said crops that need to be hand-harvested include celery, cabbage and broccoli and go into Coles and Woolworths.
For the past seven years Busch Organics have utilised seasonal workers from Vanuatu under the Pacific Labour Scheme, with a core group that returns each year, meaning they are skilled and ready to hit the ground running.
Bonaccord Ingram’s Keith Ingram said a lot of people were very worried.
“We haven’t got the positions filled by a long shot,” Mr Ingram said.
“We haven’t been in this situation before.
“Not filling our contracts makes our business unreliable to suppliers which means we will lose market share.”
The corn harvest will run from mid-January to June.
He said the company would process 14,000 tonne of sweetcorn over the next few months, which he estimated to be worth $10 million dollars and delivered across Australia.
Member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, said it was predicted the labour shortage could drive up the cost of fruit and vegetables by up to 25 per cent, making fresh produce unaffordable for many households.
“The Lindenow Valley’s $150 million horticulture industry needs suitable quarantine arrangements in place,” Mr Bull said.
We don’t have a streamlined worker program to get these workers in,” Mr Bull said. “The Tasmanian government is working with growers and paying the quarantine bill, we can’t have these vegetables going to spoil over the next few weeks. “There is a significant local workforce which has always been supplemented to get through the peak period.
“We need workers to top up numbers and resolve this situation.
“We have cases where farmers are happy to pay for the flights, but there is no system in place.
“I have also asked the Minister if she will match Tasmania’s initiative to fully subsidise the cost of quarantining its seasonal workers.”
Mr Ingram said the current floods in
Queensland should mean big demand for local produce.
Bonaccord, which employs 10 mechanics, admin staff, nurserymen, about 75 truck drivers and 15 on tractors, would usually top- up with 25 seasonal workers.
“They want to work, there’s no COVID-19 so bring them in,” he said.
The seasonal worker program has proven a massive benefit to the horticulture businesses and has been factored in to workforce planning.
Bulmer Farms is also a large employer in the valley and Andrew Bulmer said the Victorian Government seemed to be sitting on its hands.
“There’s a program in place that we know works, they don’t have COVID-19 and there are regional quarantine solutions available,” he said.
Lindenow Valley vegetable growers Bulmer Farms’ Andrew Bulmer, Bonaccord’s Keith Ingram, Busch Organics’ Kane Busch and Member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, in a celery crop ready for harvest in three week’s time. Farmers are worried the labour shortage will mean crops go to waste and are appealing for overseas labour. K473–3980