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Harvest progress confirms future directions for automation and labour

Industry Advocacy

Covid-19 has taken a blowtorch to misplaced assumptions and highlighted important future directions for seasonal labour and investment policy settings says APAL CEO Phil Turnbull following APAL’s recent visits to growers in Tasmania, Batlow and Victoria.

Local labour is only part of the solution

“This season has once and for all demonstrated that domestic labour sources alone are not a viable solution for harvest labour needs. The state and Federal governments have combined to offer unprecedented financial incentives and we’ve had increased levels of unemployment, but these programs have barely moved the dial on the supply of local harvest labour,” said Phil.

“Today’s announcement by the Victorian Government to increase flexibility in its programs is welcome but the challenges we have faced in attracting local labour should not be a surprise,” said Phil.

“Any worker wanting ongoing employment picking fruit needs to be willing and able to continuously relocate as the harvest unfolds. It’s a key reason why it’s not as popular with local workers who, like many of us, place a much greater value on long-term employment in their community and with their friends, families and networks. Seasonal work can’t provide this.”

Orchards located within easy reach of major centres have traditionally enjoyed more success in attracting local harvest labour, for example the Adelaide Hills is less than an hour from the centre of Adelaide.

“As the distance increases so does the challenge,” said Phil.

Traditionally picking has been very physically demanding and this has contributed to high churn rates amongst less experienced pickers.

Figures from the City of Shepparton and Fruit Growers Victoria joint labour initiative ‘pick Shepp’ in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley indicated that of the 1100+ people who registered via the site barely 100 people completed the induction and were placed in picking jobs, with many more of those dropping out within the first two days.

“It’s a ratio that is remarkably consistent across the nation – for every thousand expressions of interest, maybe ten per cent attend induction and less than five per cent of those actually begin work in the orchard. The paperwork and effort required of growers and industry is huge,” said Phil.

Unfortunately, holding out the hope that local workers would make up the harvest labour shortfall appears to have delayed progressing alternative sources and left growers critically short of the labour needed to harvest their crop, paying increased rates or having to leave fruit on the tree, or both.

“We have welcomed each and every announcement to boost harvest and farm labour resources – including the most recent announcements by Victoria, Tasmania and NSW. Unfortunately, these labour supplies are too little too late for our industry. We need them on farm now so they can acclimatise, pick up the necessary skills and be ‘match-fit’ for when the harvest reaches its peak,” said Phil.

Improve proven success of Seasonal Worker Programme

APAL is urging policy makers to direct their focus to what has worked and how it could be improved for growers and workers – beginning with the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP).

“Time and again we have heard truly uplifting stories of overseas seasonal workers using their harvest earnings to set up new businesses, fund education for their families and contribute to the economic and social improvement within their local communities,” Phil said.

“At the same local growers say the program is an incredibly valuable source of experienced and reliable labour and building strong friendships with workers who return year after year.”

Given the proven success of this program, APAL is urging policy makers to introduce employment blocks of less than the current six-month minimum along with options for on-farm quarantining, and/or financial assistance for quarantining if this requirement continues.

“One grower spoke of having the full team for a few weeks then relocating a few to Queensland and others to South Australia before bringing them back for the cherry harvest. He expects he will need to arrange the same until the apple harvest gets underway. The combination of compliance and logistics would give anyone a headache, but it comes on top of running an orchard business at its most hectic time of year,” said Phil.

Growers who can’t commit to six months of employment rely on labour hire firms to recruit and relocate the workers to meet the six-month requirement. In many instances this has worked well but growers argue greater flexibility could open-up the opportunity to hire more workers and also ensure that what the grower pays is what the worker receives.

Harvest tech redefines year-round labour needs

Picking platforms and other harvest-technology are also on show this season with the combination of labour shortages and financial incentives encouraging growers to invest.

The Federal Government’s instant asset write-off increased 500 per cent to $150,000 for assets used or installed by 30 June 2021.

“This policy has been a game-changer for growers but also for pickers because the new platforms remove the need to climb up and down ladders and carry picking bags.” said Phil.

“Obviously the platforms are a major investment, and they can’t work in all terrains so there will always be a need for traditional pickers, but they do offer a very different experience that’s far more attractive to people who could not or would not sign on for the traditional physical demands of picking. We can see these platforms engaging more of our local community year-round as well as at harvest.”

Phil said growers were doing the numbers on the increased productivity required to offset the investment.

“While many growers have prioritised quality over quantity this season, growers are indicating the platforms enable a gentler picking process which helps minimise bruising and other handling defects – which in turn is improving quality, packouts and productivity.”

The platforms are used for year-round orchard activity including thinning and pruning and Phil expects growers will increasingly be factoring platforms into the design of future orchard plantings.

“We are pleasantly surprised to see the number of platforms in use this season. It means Australian growers are building up a solid understanding of how the platforms work in Australian conditions and orchard designs,” said Phil.

“During our visits this month it’s been interesting to hear the conversations on how the platforms can be improved to better handle slopes, how they work with different trellis settings and how netting could be refitted to accommodate the platform.

“In a year where so much has been outside our control, it’s great to see such optimism and commitment to the future of our industry.”

APAL is looking forward to visiting other growing regions as Covid-19 travel restrictions allow.

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