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Harvest underway for a season like no other


With harvest underway across the country and new season apples and pears heading for retail shelves, it’s evident Australian consumers, retailers, distributors and producers are in completely uncharted waters with many months of uncertainty ahead.

Reports of pickers not continuing beyond the first few days, contracted labour supply not arriving and the demands of continuously onboarding new labour are emerging from the first weeks of harvest in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley, Australia’s largest growing region. These reports paint a grim picture and speak to the long road ahead for orchard owners and managers involved in the recruitment, management and retention of harvest labour.

These reports also highlight the need for transparency between growers, labour hire agencies and any sub-contractor arrangements. Labour providers shouldn’t be surprised when orchard managers request evidence that the promised labour is actually on the books and available – and anyone involved in further layers of this process should expect to be asked for similar assurance.

At the same time metro-media and consumer audiences are speculating on why prices for apples in the supermarket are higher than usual and why these higher prices don’t translate into higher returns to growers and so enable higher pay rates for pickers.

Our monthly consumer insights data has confirmed strong increases in consumer prices across 2020. Given last year’s crop was well down from average annual production levels and the impact of Covid-19 these price trends are not a surprise.

With significant uncertainty about the ability to get the crop off we have concerns that we will have a smaller than expected harvest of apples and pears. At this stage any estimate of national apple or pear crop is very, very rubbery. Until the crop is picked there is absolutely no certainty regarding the volumes of apples and pears that will be available to retailers and consumers across 2021 and early 2022.

In other years we may have had harvest issues including fires, floods, hail but these are generally localised – this year’s labour challenge is nation-wide and it’s impossible to determine the quantum.

Pacific Islands worker programs have been activated for all states but they are proving challenging to execute and have only ever provided a small proportion of the labour needs compared with holiday makers. Whether it is delays caused by operational challenges or – in Victoria’s case – to approving the overall program arrangements, considerable doubt remains about whether these programs will kick in in time to make a meaningful difference or may be as growers fear ‘too little, too late’.

It’s hard to see an upside at this stage, but maybe the fact that labour shortages have forced our industry to prioritise quality over volume will see Australian consumers enjoying some of the best fruit ever – there just won’t be much of it and will quite literally be the fruit of hard labour that began months ago.

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