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Expect the unexpected – and keep work on track


As the Victorian and NSW state governments plan their exits from long-term lockdowns via vaccination targets, localised lockdowns continue to impact regional areas. While restrictions have now lifted in Shepparton, the recent situation has offered some insight into the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on growing regions.

Out of the 70,000 people who live in Shepparton, more than 20,000 were in mandatory 14 day isolation at the height of the lockdown. As the Tier 1 exposure site was a local school, entire families had to isolate, as well as healthcare providers and close contacts connected to the school. This included a significant proportion of the local workforce.

According to Mick Crisera of Fruit Growers Victoria, the knock-on effects are still being felt, with many growers having experienced around a 25 per cent reduction in their workforce over the lockdown period.

“Because the Tier 1 exposure site was a school, it affected hundreds of families,” Mick said. “I’d be very surprised if there was any fruit business in the Goulburn Valley area that wasn’t impacted.”

Although this did not happen during peak harvest season, the Goulburn Valley area is already feeling the pressure of labour shortfall in pruning – and having so many Shepparton residents in isolation only exacerbated the issue.

“In terms of the outlook for harvest labour, we’ve already started to see shortages with labour during pruning season,” Mick said.

“The lockdown delayed pruning even further because so many people had to isolate. Pruning is a skilled job, so we can’t just send anyone in to do it. Growers who lost pruners who had to isolate have ended up behind schedule on pruning.”

Adapting for change

Mick found that having good processes and communication in place within the teams allowed orchard managers to adapt to remote working.

“6 or 7 of our orchard managers had to self-isolate, but they were able to manage and lead their teams remotely,” Mick said. “Then they had to rely on those staff managing each other and following through. Overall, we made it work for us.”

Additionally, the impact on packing sheds has highlighted the need for CovidSafe plans to be in place ahead of time.

“The packing sheds were probably operating 50-75 per cent during the lockdown,” Mick said. “Having worker ‘bubbles’ will be important going forward, so that the whole packing shed isn’t exposed to the virus. That way we can have fewer people out of action when there’s been an exposure.”

While vaccinations will help slow the spread, Mick believes growers need to be ready for dealing with Covid-19 exposure sites and the loss of staff during critical times.

“We have to be prepared for the possibility that will happen again as we open up. We’ve just got to be prepared for outbreaks so that we don’t have to shut the whole business down.”

“Everyone’s back to work now. It’s a real credit to the community in Shepparton. Everybody followed the rules, people that needed support got support. It shows what can happen in a regional area when people work together to get on top of the virus.”

Mick is hoping the upcoming Pick Goulburn Valley initiative will build on the success of last year’s Pick Shepp initiative, and encourage uptake from Australian job-seekers.

“We’ll start advertising in October for November harvest jobs in cherries,” Mick said. “We’re trying to gather a reliable harvest labour force that can move around throughout the season.”

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