Labor shortage looms again

Waste: Nectarines left to rot because they could not be harvested in time during the previous season. Photo by Geoff Adams

Agricultural and food production in Goulburn Valley businesses is being hampered by labour shortages and fruit growers are now bracing for their second tough season in trying to attract pickers.

Katunga Fresh in Katunga normally produces 12 million kilograms of tomatoes annually for major supermarkets nationally, but owner Peter Van den Goor said planting could be halved for 2022.

“Normally we employ 150 people, and we are probably 20 to 30 short at the moment,” Mr Van den Goor said.

“We had plans to do things next year, but we can’t get the workers.”

SPC people and culture general manager Robert Tanti said applications for seasonal work at the factory were well down on past years.

“December through to April is SPC’s busiest period; we receive and process harvested fruits including peaches, apricots, apples, pears and tomatoes from local producers,” Mr Tanti said.

“We need an additional 500 casual staff during the period.

“But, over the last six weeks, we have received only 590 applications, 310 fewer than the same time last year.”

Mr Tanti said border closures and limits on overseas support because of the COVID-19 pandemic had certainly highlighted the lack of available local workers to undertake work.

Rural employers have told Country News they are having difficulty finding unskilled and professional staff to fill positions.

At Tongala, the liquid fertiliser business SLTech is trying to recruit agronomists.

And now Goulburn Valley fruit growers have gone public to appeal for pickers to bring in the summer harvest and avoid a major labour shortage for the season.

Fruit Growers Victoria is urging Victorians and interstate Australians to get a fruit harvesting job on Victorian farms this summer as part of PickGV.

With a significant lack of workers for the second year running, fruit growers want to avoid crops going to waste.

Fruit Growers Victoria has launched a campaign to generate interest in harvesting jobs in the Melbourne metropolitan area and across Victoria.

Grower services manager Michael Crisera said although the Federal Government had recently announced further easing of border restrictions and backpackers were now allowed into Australia, this would not assist with the need for workers this summer and autumn due to working holiday visa holders traditionally not starting farm work until towards the end of their first year.

The Harvest Trail season started last month with cherries and finishes around May with apples.

Victorian growers are hoping that Victorians or interstate travellers in Victoria will take up the positions and try something new to save the season.

“Many of the usual Harvest Trail workers are those on working holiday visas,” Mr Crisera said.

“Last year was tough as so many had returned home when the pandemic hit, but there were at least some people who had stayed in the country.

“But those workers have now fulfilled their visa and, the new eligible visa holders that can enter Australia from now are unlikely to take up farm work until at least winter.

“Therefore, we have to rely on Victorians or those coming into the state to get the fruit off the tress and packed ready for distribution to markets and supermarkets.”

Last season some growers could not harvest all their crops, leaving fruit to rot on the ground.

Mr Crisera said the past 22 months had been tough on everyone, and the Victorian fruit industry knew it was not over yet with the whole season at risk.

“The start of the season has already been difficult with the colder and wetter weather than usual, and the repercussions of not having enough workers will not only impact the farmers themselves but the consumer,” he said.

“The consequences will be significant wastage, lack of income for the growers and rising prices for customers.”

Those considering a job in fruit harvesting or packing in Victoria should visit www.pickgv.com.au