By Growcom CEO, Stephen Barnard
Since the start of the pandemic the agriculture industry has been warning state and federal governments alike of a coming shortage of seasonal workers.
Now with the shortage becoming reality, and reports starting to trickle in of crops lost due to lack of labour, industry is now telling governments that things will get worse before they get better.
The nationwide analysis suggests a peak in the shortage will occur around March next year, with upwards of 26,000 jobs going unfilled.
This analysis however factored in some pretty heroic assumptions about the resumption of international travel mid next year, and the number of backpackers likely to flood back into Australia.
Horticulture industry bodies have queried how quickly an appetite for international travel will return, and also the assumptions of how soon a recently arrived backpacker will start looking for work on-farm instead of touring the country.
So the real situation could yet turn out to be worse.
State and federal governments have put some measures in place to attract Australians to seasonal work opportunities, and opened up pathways for Pacific Islanders to pick up the slack.
But key questions remain. Will these measures will be enough? And also, can we really afford to find out?
The first question left unanswered will have a long term impact on growers, those they employee permanently, and ultimately on food prices for consumers and our collective food security as a country.
The impact today from a lack of labour will be lost crops. But next year we could experience a shortage not just of labour but of food, as growers scale back their production in anticipation of a reduced workforce.
Growcom has long advocated state and federal governments take a precautionary approach, putting in place a range of solutions to address the labour shortage, and not rely on just a few interventions.
Greater attention must be given to retaining as many backpackers in the country who wish to stay, and then making plans to enable those who may now want to come in a COVID safe way.
And more measures will be required to attract and then retain Australians in horticulture. Helping them relocate to the regions is not our only option.