Not this year.
Australia is destroying the coronavirus with one of the world’s strictest border control regimes. But the success created problems for the nation’s farmers, who couldn’t find the labor they needed to pick and grow crops. Backpacking tourists, who typically make up 80% of the workforce harvesting fresh produce, have flocked since the pandemic began, without arriving to replace them. Seasonal workers from the Pacific islands are also largely on lockdown, even though many countries are considered to be free of Covid-19.
Quarantine of workers on farms has been tried, but it is far from what farmers need. Several Australians have accepted offers of government money to move to rural areas. Labor shortages hurt the economy: Farmers report falling profits, and some fear foreclosure. Many are now growing fewer crops, which can drive up food prices.
With increasing fatigue among the regular staff on the 190-acre Skybury farm and little prospect of extra help, Mr. Fagg and colleagues decided late last year to tear up older papaya plants and sacrifice about $ 100,000 in monthly income.
“Our production has fallen by at least a third,” said Mr. Fagg of the farm, which is located about three-quarters of a square mile near Mareeba, in the state of Queensland. It is difficult to build demand for papayas. “
Many countries rely on foreign labor to harvest crops but usually hire seasonal workers rather than tourists. The pandemic has also increased these flows, as workers from poorer parts of the European Union are unable to take agricultural jobs in wealthy countries like France when borders are closed.
With the US, UK and several other countries making progress in vaccinating their populations, hopes are rising that the economic impact of the pandemic will diminish. Australia aims to finish its Covid-19 vaccination campaign by the end of October, and its economy is emerging from its first recession in 29 years.
However, lawmakers have yet to set a date for reopening Australia’s borders, frustrating farmers who say they cannot plan a growth cycle over the past few months. Growing decisions can affect consumers across Asia, as Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of fruit, wheat and cotton.
The Fresh Products Alliance of Australia, an industry group, estimates a labor shortage could raise fruit and vegetable prices by up to 60% and reduce the value of the horticultural industry by nearly $ 5 billion. Labor intensive plants, such as berries, are the most at risk.
With a population of 25.7 million in an area the size of the US mainland, Australia has long been short on the agricultural workforce it needs.
Under the visa arrangement made 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 within Australia.
Around 40,000 backpackers are typically employed on Australian farms, roughly a third of those on a Working Holiday Maker visa. This arrangement is popular with visitors from Britain, France, Italy and several Asian countries.
However, the pandemic has shrunk this workforce to around 16,000, and continues to decline as backpackers fly home. In addition, only 2,400 seasonal workers from Pacific Island countries came from the more than 22,000 who were previously screened for visas last year.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud predicts a difficult season for farmers. “This is not a new problem; we knew in April that we would be short on labor, “he said.
Littleproud said Australia’s quarantine system was a major hurdle, as places were designated for residents and returnees. Quarantine arrangements are being made by state and territory leaders, who want to prevent a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus.
Several states have experimented with quarantine workers on farms. In October, 151 workers from Tonga flew on charter flights to Queensland to pick grapes. They wear high-visibility clothing and use color-coded equipment to separate them on the farm for 14 days when regularly tested for Covid-19.
Mark Furner, Queensland’s agriculture minister, said trials had been extended and more flights were planned.
Other initiatives include extending backpacker visas if they work on farms. The government has offered cash for Australians to move to rural areas, while students doing summer work in agriculture are eligible for grants. However, the receipts were small, and Australia’s economic recovery made the programs less attractive.
Bill Bulmer, chairman of Ausveg, which represents vegetable and potato farmers, says the sector is short of some 30,000 workers. On his own farm that produces iceberg lettuce, young spinach and other leafy greens in south-eastern Australia’s East Gippsland, crop losses have exceeded $ 600,000 due to labor shortages.
“For many crops, this has been an extraordinary year, and it is very sad for farmers to see it rot in trees or fall to the ground or plow into the soil,” said Richard Shannon, policy and advocacy manager at Growcom, Queensland’s top horticulture body.
A quarter of the 65 respondents on the Growcom crop loss list since December said labor shortages had affected their physical and mental health, including increased working hours, increased stress levels, loss of self-confidence and depression. Five farmers said they risked being seized by their bank or were considering selling.
Gavin Scurr, managing director of Piñata Farms, recently hired a new farm manager for a raspberry growing operation in Tasmania after a labor shortage contributed to the previous manager’s hospitalization under extreme stress.
Labor shortages left Pinata Farms unable to harvest 4 million strawberry punnets, the size of the containers where the fruit is often sold, at an operation in Queensland, costing the company an estimated $ 5.5 million in lost revenue. In addition, 300 tons of pineapples cannot be picked.
“We will be planting strawberries in the coming winter, but we don’t have enough manpower to build the strawberry infrastructure, let alone plant them,” said Mr Scurr, 52 and a third generation farmer. “Maybe next year, maybe longer.”
This story has been published from wire agent bait without modification to the text.