The scarcity of seasonal workers continues to impact growers as crop losses climb to over $45 million this week.
The labour shortage is a result of Federal and state government decisions to restrict the movement of people through the Australian border in order to manage the human health impacts of COVID-19.
Sixty-five separate crop losses from five states and territories have now reported on the National Crop Lost Crop Register.
Growcom’s Chief Executive Officer, Stephen Barnard, said the current labour shortage is impacting businesses and livelihoods industry wide.
“We are witnessing a concerning number of growers reporting not just financial losses, but also a decline in mental health, strain on personal finances, and doubt surrounding their future participation in the industry,” he said.
The Register allows growers to anonymously report the costs of ongoing labour shortages, beyond those that are purely financial.
Nearly one in every four respondents reported impacts on their physical and mental health including increased working hours, elevated stress levels, loss of confidence, and depression.
“It is an incredibly demoralizing situation. On the one hand you just keep saying to yourself ‘Keep going, it will get better, you will catch up’ but what ends up happening is you fall further and further behind,” said a Queensland grower.
“We had a substantial amount of stress – seeing abundance in fruit, all just hanging there, dilapidating. We lost a prodigious amount of income,” said a New South Wales grower.
One grower registered concern that rising stress and tension may lead to increased instances of domestic violence.
Growers going to the wall
In addition to mental health impacts, most growers have signaled the financial stress caused by their crop losses has critically undermined their ability to invest in their next crop and harvest. Some respondents to the Register are even reconsidering their future in the industry.
Just under two-thirds of all respondents flagged reduced future productivity after struggling to harvest produce within the desired time frame this season.
One grower from New South Wales said they were forced to abandon last year’s winter harvest.
“When the labour shortage hit hardest, we could not keep up with the ripening fruit.
“The financial loss will impact on the speed of new farm developments and re-development of our existing farm,” the grower said.
Five growers have been so severely impacted they are at risk of being foreclosed on by their bank or are considering selling their properties and leaving the industry altogether.
“Our last option is to sell the farm which may end up a reality. We have no confidence that there will be adequate workers available in 2021,” said a Queensland grower.
“I have not been able to harvest any produce. I am also struggling to meet my commitments and living expenses as a result of this. I am very stressed and worried that the bank will foreclose on me,” said a New South Wales grower.
True cost of border closures
Growcom Manager of Policy and Advocacy, Richard Shannon, said it was important for the horticulture industry to capture and convey the hidden and unintended human costs of government decisions to stop the introduction of COVID-19 into the community.
“Clearly these are difficult decisions and we’re in no way envious of our health officials. A decision to restrict arrivals into Australia at the same time protects us from COVID-19 but also exposes us to other harms to human health,” he said.
“The candid reports to date to the National Lost Crop Register from an otherwise stoic community have been very saddening.
“The horticulture industry is no by any means alone here. Our tourism and education sectors are doing it tough, so too are the many Australians overseas who can’t get home.
“And an important group we need to keep front of mind are the several thousand Pacific Islanders unable to enter Australia to take up harvest job offers. For many, this work represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to set themselves up and secure their children’s future.
“At a broader scale, the money saved and sent home by their citizens working in Australia is often a significant source of income for Pacific Island economies. Together with a dramatic downturn in tourism, this loss of income from the Australian harvest will hurt the development of these countries for years to come.
“We are calling on Federal and state governments to double down on their initiatives to incentivize Australians to take up harvest jobs, and urgently expand quarantine capacity to safely accommodate foreign workers.”
Growers urged to report and seek support
The National Lost Crop Register was launched in December to quantify the true cost to industry and the national economy from a lack of seasonal workers available to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables.
The register will remain open as long as labour shortages continue to impact production. Growers can record their losses anonymously at: https://bit.ly/NationalLostCropRegister.
Growers who feeling overwhelmed or having difficulty coping should call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Growers experiencing financial hardship should contact the Rural Financial Counselling Service on 1800 686 175.