Australians urged to backpack in their own backyards and stop fruit going to rot

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A Queensland strawberry grower is calling on Australians to “pick for their country” in a bid to stop fruit going to rot amid the labour shortage.

Bells Creek farmer Di West, of Suncoast Harvest, says food prices are likely to rise — a concern shared by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) and peak body AusVeg.

Ms West said she was forced to abandon entire paddocks because she did not have enough workers to pick and pack produce.

“There was already a certain amount of people committed to be here for the season when this all unfolded, so next year is what we’re worried about because there’s no new people coming in to replace these people,” the Bells Creek farmer said.

“We are really, really worried about next year and I think every Australian should be worried because these people pick and pack all of the food that we eat.”

Ms West said she expected to have to cut back plantings next year by at least 30 per cent.

“If that happens across the board on a lot of different commodities then [prices will rise] — that’s going to have a significant impact on people’s pockets.”

Solutions sought

COVID-19 is challenging the country’s $14.4 billion dollar horticulture industry which has traditionally relied on working holiday makers to help get fruit and vegetables off the farm.

The NFF has outlined a 10 point plan to governments, wanting:

  • an extension of the seasonal workers pilot program;
  • incentives for domestic displaced workers;
  • an introduction of an agricultural workforce code;
  • the promotion of opportunities to work in agriculture;
  • accommodation support;
  • a national agricultural workforce development network;
  • national labour hire regulation;
  • a restart of the working holidaymakers program;
  • the introduction of an agriculture visa; and
  • the inclusion of additional occupations in the horticulture industry labour agreement.

Last week, around 160 seasonal workers from Vanuatu landed in Darwin as part of a trial program to fill a labour shortage for the Northern Territory’s mango harvest.

A Federal Agriculture Department spokesperson said “the Government is aware of and very concerned about the seasonal worker shortage issue and is currently considering a range of policy options to help farmers through the upcoming harvest”.

Ms West believes governments should help subsidise on-the-job training.

She supplements workers wages for the first week to get them over the mental hurdle of being paid piece rate — a per kilogram rate of fruit harvested — until they pick up speed.

Giving it a go

Xavier Jackson was unemployed before he asked for a job more than a week ago.

“It was a little tiring the first few days but I’m getting into now and it’s not as bad as I thought it’d be,” the 18-year-old said.

He is proud of his contribution to Australia’s food security.

“It’s very important and if you need something to do, need any money, I definitely recommend it.”

Ms West said there were opportunities for young Australians to get out and learn about their own country, meet people, and become more employable.

“You’re just here for a brief time, you’ll learn these great skills, and then you’ll take that experience and that improved person that you are to another job. And you’ll get a great job,” she said.

“We need you to get out there and have a go and be a real Australian, love your country and get out and help us pick some food.”

By Jennifer Nichols (Original ABC Article)