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Vegetable growers forced to dump $150,000 worth of celery crops due to picker shortage

February 4th, 2021 | | backpacker

Vegetable growers in Victoria’s Lindenow Valley have had to dump $150,000 worth of celery crops due to a drastic shortage of seasonal workers caused by the COVID-19 travel bans.

Key points:

  • A Gippsland vegetable grower has dumped a crop because it could not be harvested in time
  • The Victorian Government is under pressure to allow seasonal workers into Australia
  • Growers have offered to charter flights and cover quarantine costs to secure pickers in time for harvest

The crops have to be picked within a short timeframe to meet supermarket certification, but COVID-19 travel bans have led to a drastic shortage of backpackers and pickers from the Pacific Islands.

Growers have offered to charter flights and pay for on-farm quarantine themselves, but the Victorian Government is yet to approve a COVID-safe way of bolstering the agriculture workforce to meet the immediate demand.

Lindenow vegetable grower Kane Busch had to destroy an entire crop of celery this morning because it could not be picked in time.

“We just chopped in 50,000 celery plants valued at $150,000,” Mr Busch said.

A celery crop in a paddock
The 50,000 celery plants could not be harvested in time due to a shortage of pickers caused by COVID-19 travel restrictions.(ABC Gippsland: Peter Somerville)

He said the wasted crop cost his business in many ways.

“It’s the loss of confidence that our buyers have in us to be able to supply them with the product consistently, it’s the monetary value we’ve lost that we will never get back, it’s the time and money, the inputs, the cost of the seedlings to get them to harvest which we just will not see again,” Mr Busch said.

“It’s a loss of sales of $150,000 and at least another $50,000 to get it to this point.”

Mr Busch said he had two other celery plantings that would be ready for harvest within two weeks and he would need more seasonal workers on hand to prevent another dumped crop. 

Play Video. Duration: 3 minutes 49 seconds
Horticulture industry facing a critical labour shortage.

“We really do rely on our seasonal workers and at this stage the Victorian Government seems to be blocking any discussion about quarantining our seasonal workers in regional areas,” Australian Vegetable and Potato industry chair Bill Bulmer said.

“It’s a sad statement to say, but with JobSeeker and JobKeeper the locals don’t seem to want to take up the manual labour.

“The standard wage for casual workers is around $27 per hour, so it’s a reasonable pay for unskilled labour. So it’s not an issue of not paying enough money

“This is an issue we’ve spoken about for the last seven months … but it’s getting to the critical point where we’re right in the peak season … where we just don’t have the labour to utilise the crop potential in the Lindenow Valley.”

Worker shortage a ‘political football’

Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien said a delayed harvest could lead to vegetable price rises for consumers. 

“The frustrating thing is that other states have been able to resolve this problem and our Government is only starting to talk about it,” he said.

“Every single day this Government delays a solution we are seeing thousands and thousands of dollars worth of crops being ploughed into the ground.”

MPs inspect celery crop
East Gippsland MP Tim Bull, Kane Busch, Victorian Opposition leader Michael O’Brien and Nationals MP Danny O’Brien inspect the dumped celery crop in Lindenow.(ABC Gippsland: Peter Somerville)

In a statement, Victoria’s Minister for Agriculture Mary-Anne Thomas said growers are encouraged to seek advice from Agriculture Victoria about the financial incentives available to help attract workers.

“Quite clearly it’s become a back and forth between the feds and the states, and ultimately the farmers are sick of it,” Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said.

“We lost about 20 per cent of our crop on our farm, just based on the fact that those workers weren’t available to us.

“Around the state we’re going to see that in larger commodity groups.

“In the Sunraysia we’ve got table grapes coming on, and then in the Goulburn Valley with stone fruit, pears, and apples and things like that.

“There’s no question that we’re going to have some serious shortages. We’ve got farmers that are looking for 120 workers, 200 workers, at a hit. 

“So there is definitely a problem and definitely no solutions in sight because, despite all the things industry has put up as options, we haven’t seen anything get across the line.”

Cash incentives for jobseekers

The Federal Government announced a $1 million scheme to encourage city-based job seekers to relocate to regional areas to work on farms months ago. 

From November 1, Australians who move away from home to take up short-term farm work are eligible for payments totalling $6,000 as part of the Harvest Trail Services Trial.

Visa holders with general and unrestricted work rights in Australia are eligible for a relocation subsidy of $2,000.

“I think we’re going to really struggle to find that [workforce] domestically so we are going to need a raft of different measures,” National’s Senator Bridget McKenzie said.

“That requires the state government to get serious about a quarantine system to allow us to bring in the workforce we need.

“Daniel Andrews and his ministers seem much more keen on getting 1,200 tennis players in for the Australian Open than actually getting serious about a quarantine system in this state that will assist our agriculture industry.”

Five organisations including AUSVEG Limited and Fruit Growers Victoria Limited will be given additional funding to develop marketing campaigns to lure farm workers to regional areas. 

Source: ABC

Sourced by Mike Barrow





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