In a smart move to mitigate risk and ensure a diversity of labour sources in a tightening labour market, General Manager Craig Boyce and his wife and staff trainer Anne have been successfully recruiting and employing workers, other than backpackers, from overseas to work in the orchards and packing shed.
Craig started working as the General Manager of Ausfarm Fresh Operations Pty Ltd in August 2016 to manage their newly acquired businesses which consists of two apple orchards and a packing shed in Stanthorpe, Queensland. Prior to this, Craig managed Integrity Fruit in Ardmona, Victoria, for six years, and has managed other large agriculture production businesses across Australia and New Zealand.
The Boyce’s, who are New Zealand immigrants themselves, first moved their young family to Shepparton, Victoria, in 2001 to work in a horticultural business there. Craig’s wife Anne has always been very supportive but preferred to stay away from the orchard, even though they would often live on site.
“Managing the orchard or packing shed businesses were Craig’s ‘thing’,” Anne shares.
But when Anne was looking for some inspiration while working part-time as an integration aide Craig suggested she come and work in the packing shed at Integrity Fruit.
“I was hesitant to work there at first but started at the bottom folding boxes and I’d be looking around at everything that was happening and constantly asking Craig ‘why is it done that way?’,” Anne says.
From there Anne worked her way through the practices in the packing shed and eventually became the staff trainer in the business. Anne’s engagement in this way helped the Boyce’s to address one of the most significant problems the business faced – a reliable and trained labour source.
Diversifying the labour pool
Horticultural businesses are typically heavily reliant on backpackers for labour.
“When we first moved to Shepparton we needed people at the same time everyone else needed people so I looked at alternatives and employed some Afghan people from Woomera,” says Craig. “Fifty males turned up, they jumped out of the bus with their suits on as that was the best clothing they had.”
As Craig and Anne both quickly learned, employing people who had come from different cultural backgrounds, and in this circumstance, unrest in their homeland, could be challenging. They needed to go back to basics.
“There would be noises throughout the orchard that we took for granted like a bird scarer, but the Afghanis have been seen to hit the deck because they were reminded of sounds similar to their homeland. There was a lot of naivety on our side – but they were a willing workforce and what were we? We were immigrants as well,” says Craig.
“We are now great friends with some of those people and it’s nice to see their second generation start to come through too. Also, some of the Afghan workers have done very well, they have built a life for their families in the region and some are among the best orchardists in Shepparton. All because they had the desire to achieve and succeed.”
Anne adds, “from there we explored alternative opportunities and started helping a group of students from Indonesia on an Ag College TAFE scheme. Every year there would be a new group of people come through. That’s really how we got started in the overseas style work program, we gained so much knowledge and reward out of having these people come, as did our kids who got to grow up with people of different cultures; we went and visited them in their country and could see where their passion to work came from.
“We were involved in this programme for about eight years and during that time the only Indonesians allowed out of the country on a working visa came to the Shepparton area and worked for us. They were provided with the required training from TAFE and we gave them the work and they went home with a few thousand dollars.”
When the couple moved to Western Australia they continued to utilise their contacts in Indonesia and initiated a couple of programs there too. “We continued to implement training programs including signing a MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the government to provide organic training to the college as a way of giving back, after all they were also really nice people and we thought we could learn a lot from too,” Craig shares.
Employing Indonesians also came with challenges and it took Craig time to demonstrate what was expected of them in an Australian work environment.
“By the end of season they were the best staff we had because they were trained, toughened to the work environment and cared about the crop. They also wanted to share the opportunity with their people – they wanted the program to be successful,” he explains.
There’s a real passion when you speak to both Anne and Craig about giving people an opportunity to succeed in their role. They take pride and ownership over employing a diversity of people and talk about the relationships they build with their overseas workers, not just for the six months they are employed – but for life.
From Indonesia to the Pacific Islands
After having some experience in employing overseas workers Craig and Anne looked beyond Indonesia to the Pacific Islands for a potential labour source and to take advantage of Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme that allows workers from a number of island nations to work in Australia temporarily.
In the early days of using seasonal workers, the Boyce’s were unsuccessful in finding seasonal workers that met their needs. So they decided to take recruitment into their own hands and visit one of the countries covered by the Seasonal Worker Programme, Vanuatu, to select their own workers. Their initiative has been so successful that they now go twice a year to recruit staff.
“We don’t believe that you can just go and take 20 people from anywhere and expect them to be a perfect match for your business,” says Anne. “I wouldn’t just take 20 backpackers and say OK we’re going to keep you for six months, regardless of how you can work.”
Craig adds that they put a lot of effort into screening their overseas staff to ensure they’re the best fit for their business – measuring everything from their eyesight to their lateral thinking skills.
“The more we travel to their countries the more we understand where they have come from and their culture, then the better we are at helping them settle in when they arrive in Australia and be successful and satisfied employees.”
Anne explains that certain aspects of life here that Australians take for granted like running water, microwaves or toilets – may be entirely unfamiliar to some of the workers. So helping them come to terms with the differences and appreciating how it might be difficult for them is important to helping them adjust quickly and easily to living and working in Australia.
Employing the best
The Seasonal Worker Programme first started in July 2012, and since then only a few apple and pear growers have employed staff under it. Yet a report from Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has shown that seasonal workers were on average 22 per cent more efficient than working holiday makers (backpackers). With new seasonal workers 13 per cent more efficient and returning seasonal workers 27 per cent more efficient.
Anecdotal evidence from apple and pear growers confirms these findings and Craig and Anne can attest to them too. But for them, one of the key drivers to employing seasonal workers was to avoid the uncertainty that comes with backpackers and diversify their labour sources to reduce risk.
“Teaching skills and managing our workload and is hard, I’ve currently got 70 backpackers in the orchard thinning,” says Craig. “The difference between employing backpackers is they’re managing their lifestyles without needing to consider our profitability or any long term employment with us. We can’t afford to manage our workload like that and all the investment into developing skills is lost which creates large demands onto my block managers.
“If that’s the labour force you’re going to use all the time then you get used to it, but we’re used to trying to control those environments and securing a longer-term relationship with our employees.”
Seasonal workers are obliged to work for a period of up to six months assuring employers, like the Boyces, that they will have staff when staff are needed.
“You can get all the growing techniques right, know how many pieces of fruit are on a tree, how many bins you’re going to pick, the fruit size and picking dates – you know all those things and that’s good business practice but guess what, you’ve got one person between that piece of fruit and that bin that could destroy everything for the year,” says Craig. “They’ve got your life in their hands so they need some reason, intent or desire to make sure you succeed.”
There’s no limit to the number of times a seasonal worker can return on their six-month working visa and they can arrange with their employer if they would like to return the following year.
“It does take effort but our investment is paying back now and it’s reciprocal. We also alter the crew, drop a few out for six months if they’re not performing as well, they may get a bit blasé after a few seasons but then they become keen to work again,” says Craig.
The Boyces’ goal is to secure skilled labour and they see the Seasonal Worker Programme as an opportunity to constantly bring that skill back into their business during the busy times.
“Islander workers can be a huge asset, but some industry members may easily discount their value as they don’t take the time to invest in them,” says Craig. “But unlike backpackers, seasonal workers must commit to your business for six months, backpackers have the potential to leave at any time.”
He adds that seasonal workers have a real drive to do well which is something you can’t buy, and they really want to succeed so they can return the next season.
Hard work pays off
As Anne reminds all seasonal workers during their induction they are being given a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“At the start I say to every one of them ‘you have to capture this moment – there’s nowhere in the world Craig and I can go to work and earn 10-20 times the wage of our home country and this is what you’re being given now, you must capture this moment, capture this opportunity’,” she says.
They have some fascinating stories to share about the incredible people who come to work for them and the impact working in Australia has had on their lives – like the lady from Vanuatu who was able to build a house with a concrete floor that provided protection for her village during the most recent cyclone. Her goal is to return for another season so she can add windows to that house. But at the end of the day, all their employees are there to make money for the business.
“The seasonal workers almost need to be more efficient than our other workers because there’s more cost involved with their employment,” says Craig who explains they have to provide all sorts of additional support for seasonal workers like collecting them from the airport, providing some of their flight costs, cultural training and ensuring they offer ongoing pastoral care. But the workers are self-sufficient and do pay for everything else themselves such as accommodation, health insurance and transport to work.
“They’ve got to become a long-term resource, for us. I’ve got to give my staff and managers good people they can work with and I need to have good managers for those people to work with.”
And it seems he’s delivering on this with the next batch of seasonal workers due to start work in early 2017 at Ausfarm Fresh. Many of them are returning workers – staff who Craig and Anne have worked with in other businesses and who they know will be successful, but it will be the workers’ first time in Stanthorpe.
Craig and Anne’s daughter Olivia also decided to make the move to Stanthorpe, putting her nursing career on hold to commit time to the testing regime overseas and assist with some of the pastoral care when the staff arrive. Olivia has grown up surrounded by many different cultures and has travelled to parts of Indonesia, Vanuatu and more recently Samoa – she points out that the pay is not great but the personal rewards are good.
Previously when employing seasonal workers Craig has used an approved employer or contractor not associated with his business – increasing their labour costs by approximately 12 per cent. “At Ausfarm we’ve made the decision to become an approved employer which will reduce that cost to around 3 per cent – so a 9 per cent payroll saving is huge in our industry and across our farms,” he explains.
“The process required by the Department of Employment is very rigid and I really need to learn this new environment of being an approved employer correctly before I am left to my own devices.” So for this reason he has engaged Agribusiness Labour Consultants to overview and audit all areas to ensure they are compliant with the program.
“If there is one thing I have learnt over the years, it is when you don’t know how to do something then it’s a lot quicker to resource those needs with someone else’s life experiences rather than making those same mistakes yourself.”
A new breed of employee
It’s obvious when speaking with Craig that he has a corporate background as he constantly refers to the need to use only the best business practices. He says there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, when staff are offered the right support and resources they will deliver for the business.
“In every business there’s a diversity of people, it’s important to understand how to make them productive, how to build in measuring and monitoring practices, and how to offer the resources they need to succeed both personally and professionally – it’s a corporate model, and it works,” he explains.
As a manager that’s his main point of difference, Craig’s approach to business, the value he places in people and their development and practices are born from his corporate farming background and the imperative to look at production from a business perspective.
His employer, Ausfarm Fresh, also views the orchards and packing shed as an investment and expects them to run successfully and generate profits. According to Craig, their goal is for the business to become a platform to export products into Asia using Australia’s clean and green food safety reputation.
And with good staff at all levels – they may just achieve this.
Created with flickr slideshow, images courtesy Olivia Boyce Photography.
Profile: Nabi Baqiri
Size: 450 acres
Grows: Corella pears, Cripps Pink, Rosy Glow, Gala, Buckeye Gala, peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines
Nabi Baqiri arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2004 after spending three years on Nauru. His brother had moved to Australia in 2000 and was working as a fruit picker in Mildura. “He told me it’s very hard to find a job in Melbourne and suggested I move my family to the countryside to pick fruit,” he says.
After taking English lessons at TAFE in Melbourne for a couple of months Nabi took his brothers’ advice and found work in Shepparton picking fruit for Craig Boyce at Goulburn Valley Orchards.
Nabi has worked his way into a position where he now owns and operates two businesses in the Goulburn Valley: an orchard contracting business he started in 2009; and Kaarimba which he purchased in 2013.
His business partner at Kaarimba is Gerard Alampi from Prima Fresh Orchards & Coolstores – Nabi concentrates on growing the fruit whereas Gerard packs and markets it. Their larger fruit is exported to Singapore and Dubai and locally they predominantly sell to Coles, with some also making it’s way to Woolworths and Aldi.
Nabi is currently expanding his plantings and has recently purchased 200 acres of vacant land with an Afghani friend where they plan to plant apples and pears.
“I love going to the orchard and seeing the beautiful fruit we grow and I say to myself, Nabi you’ve done the best you can do which is very rewarding,” he says.
Thanks to Craig and Anne Boyce and also Nabi Baqiri for sharing their stories and to Olivia Boyce for the photography.