HINDERING SUCCESS: Granite Belt Growers Association president Angus Ferrier said the full extent was still to hit the local economy.
HINDERING SUCCESS: Granite Belt Growers Association president Angus Ferrier said the full extent was still to hit the local economy.

Worker shortage crop losses at $38 million and counting

THE national cost of worker shortages has topped at a whopping $38 million as Granite Belt experts reveal the full devastation is still to come.

Staggering Growcom findings were revealed following the launch of the National Lost Crop Register in mid-December.

While it was hard to name what percentage of that would be local farmers, Granite Belt Growers President (GBGA) Angus Ferrier said the impact was undeniable.

“It does reflect what we are seeing on the Granite Belt,” he said.

“The most notable category affected is strawberries where I know for a fact we have lost strawberries due to insufficient labour.”

Granite Belt strawberry grower Nathan Baronio was one of the first to report a loss of more than $500,000 when the register was created.

But the real nightmare for many was still looming with the apple, grape and tomato season just weeks away and no solution in sight.

Mr Ferrier said while GBGA’s ‘Harvest Army’ initiative had seen some success, the true saving grace remained in vetting more Pacific workers.

“I don't want to sound careless but what is done is done and the best we can do now is mitigate problem going forward,” he said.

“The seasonal workers program has to move beyond the pilot phase and enter a full phase, where more Pacific Islanders are bought into the state and arrival dates are made more reliable

“I’ve heard a few examples where a plane arrival has been pushed out two to three weeks arbitrarily or seemingly without good reasons.

“Two to three weeks difference is huge for someone expecting workers.”

Director at Applethorpe's Eastern Colour, Nathan Baronio was one of the first to note substantial losses.
Director at Applethorpe's Eastern Colour, Nathan Baronio was one of the first to note substantial losses.

Mr Ferrier also said State and Federal incentives to move metropolitan unemployed residents to the region had proved disheartening so far.

“It may have incentivised hundreds of workers but the industry needs thousands,” he said.

“There is a disconnect with the number and speed in which the workforce needs to be replenished.”

Growcom’s Policy and Advocacy manager Richard Shannon shared a similar stance.

“Clearly we need to do more. Without urgent action our labour supply situation will only continue to deteriorate and growers will keep losing crops until international travel reaches the same scale it was before the pandemic, expected to be more than two years away,” he said.

It had led the horticulture industry to call for an expansion of the Trans Tasman bubble to include Pacific Island Nations free from COVID as a way for workers to enter Australia, outside of the current quarantine pathways and the international returned travellers cap.

“While backpackers will likely continue to prove an important part of our seasonal worker mix, we need to now start planning to reduce our reliance on them into the future. This should include consideration of a new visa category designed specifically to meet our seasonal harvest needs,” Mr Shannon said.

But in the meantime, for Granite Producers it was looking like a new year full of farming hardship.

“Farmers want to rebound from a poor season last year but this is another pressure on farming businesses,” Mr Ferrier said.

“Most have enough rain and the last thing we need is our businesses hindered by yet another problem not of our making.”

Stanthorpe Border Post

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