Australian farmers ‘red eyes’ find people picking papaya and strawberries

Papaya, strawberry, pineapple and vegetables in Australia are coming in season, but have to leave a lot because it is difficult to find enough people to harvest in the middle of the season.

Australia defended Covid-19 with one of the most stringent border control regimes in the world. But that success is causing trouble for their farmers, because they are not recruiting enough labor to harvest and cultivate.

Skybury Farms, in northern Australua, has long attracted a large number of foreign tourists to seasonal work. This year, when the papaya season, rancher Paul Fagg cannot recruit enough people. The harvested yield is therefore reduced by a third. Also due to a lack of workers, the farm cut down old papaya trees instead of keeping them.

“For many crops, this has been a good year. But farmers find it rotting in trees, falling to the ground or plowed into the ground,” said Richard Shannon, policy and advocacy manager at Growcom, Queensland said.

Or as Gavin Scurr, CEO of Piñata Farms, recently hired a new farm manager for the raspberry operation in Tasmania, after a shortage of labor contributed to the previous manager being hospitalized for stress. extremely straight.

The shortage of labor meant that Piñata Farms was unable to harvest 4 million tons of strawberries, causing the company to lose revenue of about $ 5.5 million. In addition, 300 tons of pineapples cannot be picked.

“We will grow strawberries next winter, but now there is not enough labor to build the strawberries growing infrastructure, let alone grow them,” said Scurr, 52, of the farming family. said three generations and said that it may take a year or longer to have enough workers.

Harvest papaya at Skybury Farms. Photo: Skybury Farms.

Bill Bulmer, president of Ausveg, which represents vegetable and potato growers, said the sector was short of around 30,000 workers. On his own farm, which produces lettuce, spinach and other green leafy vegetables in East Gippsland, southeast Australia, the damage has exceeded $ 600,000 due to lack of labor.

A quarter of 65 people who reported crop failures at Growcom since December said the lack of labor had affected their physical and mental health, including increased working hours and stress levels. high, loss of confidence and depression. Farmers say they are in danger of foreclosure from a bank or are considering selling their farm.

Dust tourists, who typically make up 80% of the workforce harvesting fresh produce, have been absent since the outbreak of the pandemic with no replacement. Meanwhile, seasonal workers from the Pacific islands were unable to reach them, although many countries were considered Covid-19 free.

And the labor shortage is hurting the economy. Farmers reported a drop in profits and some fear of foreclosure. Many people plant fewer trees, which can lead to increases in food prices. The Australian Fresh Produce Coalition predicts a shortage of labor could increase the price of vegetables and fruits by 60% and reduce the value of the horticulture industry by nearly $ 5 billion. Labor-intensive crops, such as berries, are the most risky.

However, lawmakers have yet to set a date for the reopening of the border, disappointing growers with difficulty planning for the next crop. Australia’s farming decisions can affect consumers across Asia, as it is one of the world’s largest exporters of fruit, wheat and cotton.

With a population of 25.7 million people on a territory the size of the United States, Australia has long had a shortage of the agricultural workforce. Under a visa policy introduced about 15 years ago, backpackers can extend their stay from one year to two years if they agree to complete at least 88 days of work in the country.

Around 40,000 backpackers typically work on farms, with a third of them holding a Working Holiday Maker visa. This is very common with visitors from the UK, France, Italy and several Asian countries.

However, the pandemic has narrowed the workforce to about 16,000 and is continuing to decline as they return home. In addition, only 2,400 seasonal workers from the Pacific island nations arrived, out of more than 22,000 workers pre-approved for a visa last year.

“This is not a new issue. We knew in April of last year that there would be a shortage of labor,” said Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. According to him, the quarantine system is a bottleneck because these facilities are for citizens returning from abroad.

Some states have tested for labor isolation on farms. In October, 151 charter workers flew from Tonga to pick grapes. They were isolated on the farm for 14 days and tested regularly for Covid-19. Mark Furner, Queensland’s head of agriculture, said the test has been expanded and more flights are planned.

Other initiatives include extending visas for backpackers if they work on farms. Governments distributed people cash to move to rural areas, while students who worked summer on farms received subsidies. However, the amount of money is not much while the economy is recovering, making those programs less attractive.

Session An (according to WSJ)


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