Labour shortfall prompts automation research

If there’s a single common challenge hovering over Australia’s pome fruit industry it’s labour – specifically, a shortage thereof – prompting 2018 Nuffield scholar Bisi Oladele to look into packhouse automation.

As the technical manager for Geoffrey Thompson Fruit Packing at Shepparton, Bisi oversees all quality control and compliance aspects of one of Australia’s biggest apple and pear packing operations.

Jeftomson, as the business is commonly known, exported its first fruit in 1949 on behalf of growers who had asked the man whose name it bears to build and manage a local packhouse and cold store facility.

Geoffrey Thompson Snr established buyers for Australian apples and pears in the UK and Europe, North America, Southeast Asia and New Zealand, and until the early 1990s the company focused primarily on exporting.

Local Goulburn Valley family orchards deliver apples and/or pears to Jeftomson, supplementing product from the company’s own 700 hectares of orchards.

Jeftomson-owned farms produce about 90,000 bins per year comprising five varieties of apple (Cripps Pink, Granny Smith, Royal Gala, Red Delicious and Fuji) and three of pear (Williams, Packham and Beurré Bosc), of which more than 90 per cent is distributed domestically. The company has direct supply relationships with all Australian retailers.

The remaining fruit is exported to the UK and Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

Jeftomson has its own transport fleet of about 20 trucks operating as a fully accredited transport business.

Jeftomson processes 85,000 bins of apples and pears every year.

Coincidental encounter

Bisi’s route to the Jeftomson headquarters in Wheeler Street, Shepparton, was circuitous.

Holding a Bachelor of Technology in Storage Technology from her native Nigeria, she moved to Australia in 1990 to study for a master’s degree in food science and technology at the University of New South Wales. Two years later, she embarked on a doctorate, choosing to investigate post-harvest food technology.

In 1994 she met her future husband, a Nigerian sonographer who had arrived under Australia’s skilled migration program.

Bisi subsequently worked for Lion, Cadbury and Dairy Farmers Australia.

“Then I got a job in Shepparton,” she says. “We were planning to visit for Christmas anyway, and then I saw a position advertised at Visy. They offered it to me at the end of November so instead of just visiting for a few days we packed up and moved the family.”

By that stage Bisi and Vincent were the parents of seven-year-old twin boys, Tomi and Tobi.

From Visy it was literally just a short hop across the road to Jeftomson.

“I was with Visy for four years, then Jeftomson headhunted me,” she says.

Managing Director Garry Parker says recruiting Bisi has proved to be one of his best hiring decisions.

Although she did not grow up with a hands-on connection to farming in Nigeria, one grandfather owned an orchard and her father was an agricultural engineer. “That started my interest in agriculture,” she says.

The Oladeles’ experience in relocating to “Victoria’s fruit bowl” gave Bisi an appreciation of the factors influencing labour availability in regional centres.

Helping hand

“One of the main problems for the Jeftomson business is we don’t seem to be able to attract locals to our farm working crews,” Bisi says. “Mostly they’re backpackers.” This is a concern for the future of this industry.

“If we want to offer agricultural work it has to be a complete package for people. Their partners have to be able to get local jobs. Their children need good schooling. I mean, if I had come to Shepparton for a good job, but did not have a good school for my kids, I would not have made the change. Equally, if my husband had not been able to secure quality employment we most likely would not have stayed living in a regional centre.”

The short-term nature of harvest work is also unappealing to potential applicants, she says.

“Getting the right staff will always be an industry problem.

“In fairness, we can’t guarantee full-time jobs for people all year round. Sometimes we forget that’s why they don’t want to do work on a farm or in a packhouse. Many people prefer to look for a job they can do full time.

“That’s why we have backpackers. Unfortunately, some backpackers are only here for three to six months and then they go, and we have another set the following year and another set the year after that.”

Jeftomson’s solution is to ensure the backbone of the operation remains stable by having highly skilled locals in core positions.

“We always try to make sure in each key area we have highly skilled locals who can assist the new staff with on the job training.”

Bisi says backpackers can generally be split into two categories: those moving around to see the country who stay for only two or three weeks in any one place, and those seeking work. “The ones who come for the job stay with us for the full season,” she says.

Jeftomson’s worker recruitment is handled by the not-for-profit agency MADEC.

Having a reputable provider screen candidates, verify documentation and carry out an initial induction relieves managers of much of the pressure associated with sourcing short-term staff.

“MADEC does all the checks and makes sure their visas are in order.

“When they arrive here to our orchards they have a second induction, to introduce them to our culture.”

How many people does it take to keep an operation of Jeftomson’s size functioning smoothly?

“Last year we had 5,000 people do the induction process with MADEC,” Bisi says. “That’s a combination of the orchard and the packhouse at different times of the year. That’s why we have to go through MADEC; we wouldn’t have the resources to do it ourselves.”

Bisi says automation will not necessarily make all manual workers redundant but could instead pave the way for existing team members to move into specially-skilled roles.

Automated approach

As one of 24 Australians awarded agricultural research scholarships by the Nuffield Foundation for 2018, Bisi has undertaken to investigate the potential for automating packhouse processes as an alternative to relying entirely on human labour.

“With Nuffield it’s not all for travelling so I’ll be looking at what’s happening inside Australia as well as outside. I will see what’s happening here so I can know where we are as an industry.

Nuffield support

Nuffield Australia is part of a worldwide organisation dedicated to “developing potential and promoting excellence in all aspects of agricultural production, distribution and management through the adoption of local and international best practice, and continuous development of a unique network of industry leaders and innovators”.

Applications for the 2019 round of scholarships will open on 1 April and be accepted until June this year. Twenty-eight study allowances of $30,000 each will be available.

More information:

“A few people from our business have travelled to the USA, New Zealand and Europe in the past to look at automation, so that’s given me a guide: Italy, the Netherlands and maybe one other country are being considered for my future travels. That will be a little bit later in the year.

“I’m also hoping to go to South Africa, because it’s big in exports of apples and pears. It will be interesting to see what the South Africans do. I’m thinking they might not see much need for automation because they have a big population [of workers], in which case I will then look at which countries are successful in what they’re doing not because they’re doing it better at all, but because they have a cheaper labour supply.

“It’s going to be expensive to put in the level of automation required so we must ensure we are making the right decision. For this investment to be viable it will mean the Jeftomson business may need to work with other businesses to increase the volume of fruit being packed through the new automated facility.”

Bisi suggests the most efficient model could involve groups of packers investing together in advanced automated equipment.

Individual development

Bisi says automation will not necessarily make all manual workers redundant but could instead pave the way for existing team members to move into specially skilled roles.

“For example, we’ve encouraged one of our young managers now to take part in some programs that are offered by the industry through the University of Tasmania.

“In Australia we need to upskill our staff, whereas in the countries where they have the access to cheap labour there is not currently the need to automate.”

Bisi’s interest in fostering career development both at Jeftomson and across pome fruit industry more broadly led to the company founding its own internship program in 2017.

“At a meeting of a skilled workforce group put together by the industry there were three of us from Jeftomson and two lecturers from the University of Melbourne. This group is all about upskilling and realising people need to have an opportunity to be exposed to the industry so they know what to expect.

“The lecturers said ‘We want to offer our students an opportunity to get hands-on horticultural business experience’ and we replied ‘Yes, we can certainly help with that’, so our intern program actually came out of that conversation.

“I think the uni had about 24 agriculture students who applied for the program, and we ended up with three of them.”

The trio spent the majority of the three-month stay developing practical skills in the orchard but also had a fortnight’s exposure to the packhouse, cold store and office environment.

“At Jeftomson we have the complete supply chain so I had them here for about two weeks and they spent time in the different areas. First they were with the Managing Director for a couple of hours, and then they met with the accountants to see that side of the business. They spent some time in the export division, sales and marketing, transport, logistics and the packhouse.”

All three returned to Melbourne when university resumed at the start of March, having first put together a short video thanking Jeftomson for this initiative.

“One thing we keep in mind is that when we train people up, if they want to move somewhere else it’s okay, because they will still be in the industry. That’s very important.

“That was one of the things we looked at when we designed our intern program.

“We would love to have them all work for us but that’s not our intention. If we run it every year we’ll have three people this year and another three next year and so on. We might not necessarily be able to guarantee a job for each person, but at least we’ll know they will land somewhere in the industry.”

Bisi is now seeking feedback from the inaugural participants as a gauge of the program’s efficacy.

“What I’m hoping is that, based on what we get back from them, I’ll be able to start talking to other packhouses around this area to see if they can open up the same type of opportunity.”

Bisi and two of the interns that joined Jeftomson’s this year under the internship program instigated by Bisi.

Agricultural appeal

Overseeing the internships dovetails neatly with Bisi’s interest in promoting agriculture as a career.

“Part of the idea behind the intern program is trying to get people to stay in the region,” she says.

“It would be great to keep encouraging others in our area to open opportunities to the younger ones who want to stay in the industry. We must give them exposure to this exciting and dynamic career path.”

Bisi has also begun surveying high school students on their understanding of agriculture.

“Last year, even before my Nuffield application, when I was talking with the skilled workforce I said that one of the common myths within the industry was that when we say ‘agriculture’ our kids think ‘picking and packing’.

“I did a survey of Year 11 students at one of the schools and, surprisingly to me, that wasn’t the result I received. Actually, it was amazing, because a lot of them were talking about soil science and biology and other related career paths. The percentage who listed ‘picking and packing’ as an agricultural job was very low. This survey was at Shepparton Grammar, which is more academically focused, so one of the things I plan to do is run the same survey at the same year level at all the schools in Shepparton and then see what the results come out at.”

Nuffield next steps

At the time of writing, Bisi was overseas on the first of two scheduled Nuffield scholarship trips sponsored in her case by the William Buckland Foundation.

The trip began with three days of meetings in Canberra with agricultural policymakers before she travelled with four other Australians and fellow scholars from Ireland, the UK (Northern Ireland), the Netherlands and the US to an agricultural conference in the Netherlands and then onwards to sites in Ireland, the US, Mexico, Brazil and NZ.

“In my research I’m going to be looking at two areas: automation in the packhouse and how that will change the skill levels required. I plan to promote agriculture as an exciting and dynamic career.”

‘Typical’ day

As Jeftomson’s Technical Manager, Bisi has an enormously varied role.

“It’s almost everything,” she says. “My job is making sure the customer always gets what they’ve asked for in terms of quality, so that means I have to manage everything right from the orchard when we start growing it, up to the point where the customer consumes the piece of fruit.”

Her portfolio spans keeping accreditation for programs such as Freshcare, BRC and GlobalGap up to date; monitoring chemical residues; ensuring all relevant records are accurate and complete; monitoring the operation of thermostats and data loggers; and overseeing quality control to protect the fruit from damage such as bruising, making sure the lines work to specification and labelling requirements are met, and seeing that final dispatch inspections are carried out.

“These are all the little puzzles that build the whole apple or pear,” she says. “By the time it gets to the packhouse there have been a considerable amount of costs incurred, so we then need to make sure that during the storage and handling we do not cause any losses due to poor storage practices. During harvest we have managers, supervisors and quality inspectors out in the field checking the quality. This year we’ve started using a video that shows the harvesting staff how to handle the fruit properly.

“In any process, we have to think of the end customer and put their needs and expectations first.

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