By Growcom CEO Stephen Barnard

Never waste a good crisis, goes the popular saying in politics.

Attributed to Rahm Emanuel, then Chief of Staff to President Obama in the early stages of the Global Financial Crisis, the quote is perhaps more true now as it was then.

It speaks of the exceptionally rare opportunity that a crisis presents of fundamentally changing the way things work while everything is up in the air and all bets are off, where normally we’re limited to simply tinkering around the edges.

COVID-19 has caused enormous disruption across the world and to our economies. Growers have been through the wringer in terms of mental and physical stress. Business empires will be both made and lost in the chaos.

For the Australian horticulture industry, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to set ourselves up for future productivity gains by rethinking and reforming our seasonal labour supply.

As horticulture has continued to grow, by accident and not necessarily good planning, our industry had come to rely on backpackers for three-quarters of our labour supply, and on the Working Holiday Maker program to incentivise them to work on farm.

But the Working Holiday Maker program by design and in practice continues to be for the principle purpose of cultural exchange. It’s about stimulating the tourism industry, not securing our food supply.

While backpackers will likely continue to play an important part in our labour mix, now is our chance to rebalance and diversify our workforce base.

A commitment from Minister Littleproud to deliver a new agriculture harvest visa by Christmas is key to this reform process. Also encouraging is the promise from Prime Minister Morrison to enable an extra 12,500 Pacific Islanders to take up job offers in Australian by next March.

Growcom understands that reforming our workforce will take time, effort and care. On behalf of growers we’ll bring an open mind and remain flexible. While changing our labour mix will come with short term costs, we need to keep our eyes on the longer term productivity prize.

Analysis conducted by ABARES in 2018 showed seasonal workers from the Pacific were 20 percent more productive on farm picking fruit compared to Working Holiday Makers.  Our industry deserves a better workforce, and we’re not about to waste this opportunity to deliver one.