Australia's farmers set for record $70bn year – but labour shortages and Covid rules threaten harvest

Australia’s agricultural sector is set for a record $73bn year but labour shortages and border restrictions are threatening farmers’ ability to deliver on the promise of a bumper harvest.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Jonathan Barrett/Reuters

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resources Economics and Sciences released its agricultural overview report on Tuesday, revealing how a “remarkable combination of events” – optimal seasonal conditions and high commodity prices across multiple sectors – are expected to mean that total agricultural production surpasses the $70bn mark for the first time.

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The National Farmers’ Federation said this year’s remarkable growth was an important step towards its goal to lift agriculture to a $100bn industry by 2030.

According to the quarterly Rabobank rural confidence survey, also released on Tuesday, “Australian farm sector confidence is at one of its highest levels in the survey’s history”. But Rabobank Australia’s chief executive, Peter Knoblanche, said the biggest concerns among farmers in relation to Covid-19 were the impact of restrictions on securing farm labour and on shipping delays and container costs.

© Photograph: Jonathan Barrett/Reuters Optimal conditions and high commodity prices are expected to mean that Australia’s total agricultural production surpasses $70bn for the first time.

The agriculture minister, David Littleproud, said 27,000 men and women from 10 Pacific nations had been found to work in regional Australia but that only 10,000 of those could be brought in.

He told ABC Breakfast TV that one of the problems had been states’ different quarantine arrangements and caps on letting the workers enter.

He praised South Australia’s creation of its own quarantine facility and for being the first state to offer in-country quarantining in Vanuatu, as well as the Northern Territory for working with the federal government.

Queensland is trialling on-farm quarantine system but Littleproud raised concerns about the small scale of Queensland’s endeavour and said: “Victoria won’t even allow them to quarantine in their own state.”

Littleproud announced a new agricultural visa in August. It will provide a pathway to permanent residency which he said would allow workers to be part of communities rather than transient.

The visa’s 30 September start date may be too late to accomodate the labour demands of the bumper winter grain crop expected in three weeks. The NFF acknowledged that this year’s harvest would be worth $30bn – a key pillar of the $70bn-plus forecast.

The labour shortage will be felt in many of the skilled roles involved in seasonal harvesting work, including header drivers, mechanics and general harvest staff for grain crops such as wheat, barley, oats and canola.

Rod Gribble, the president of Australian Custom Harvesters, said approximately 30% of the skilled staff who are contracted to operate specialist harvesting machinery come to Australia from the northern hemisphere when their own harvest is finished.

Video: Climate change inaction risks missing out on regional jobs: Bowen (Sky News Australia)

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Matthew Bourke, manager of Bourke Harvesting which offers contracted harvesting services, said: “We would have liked to employ more workers than usual because of the bigger crop but the main issue is [the labour] is just not around.”

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According to Bourke, domestic border restrictions are also a problem for many agricultural service staff, including harvest contractors, who are refusing to take work that involves border crossing.

State farming organisations have been working to find solutions, such matching retired Australian defence force members with farmers and professional contract harvesting businesses.

Jess Wallace, an executive manager at WA Farmers, has been overseeing this project and acting as the industry conduit. She said there had been an “influx” of interest with 810 members joining the east coast Facebook page and 447 members on the Western Australia and South Australia page, “both growing considerable each day, with numerous matches been made already”.

But even where workers are available, domestic border restrictions are delaying the agricultural supply chain.

Tony Mahar, the chief executive of the National Farmers’ Federation, said if farmers couldn’t get their products and equipment across borders it could compromise the positive forecast.

The problem is particularly acute for Peter Mailler, a grain and beef farmer from Boggabilla whose farm lies in the far north of inland New South Wales, a few kilometres south of the Queensland border.

Mailler said his “biggest problem” would be his ability to deliver grain.

With Queensland stopping every vehicle that crosses the border and demanding four different documents be shown at the checkpoint, Mailler estimates that the extra 1,000 truck movements due to the harvest will result in more than six hours of stoppages a day.

“Harvest is always a stressful time with difficult logistics,” Mailler said. But this year “the stress is almost unbearable”.

“Every day late we lose yield and quality so the price goes down. My expectation is that we will suffer a quarter of a million dollar loss if we can’t get trucks turned around in normal fashion.”

Mailler said he would be more accepting of the situation if he could understand how it was improving safety, but he does not believe those making the decisions “understand how little interaction we have.”

“The Covid risk from broadacre agricultural activities in our part of the world is almost zero. We are isolated from each other. With harvesting ,one person sits in one air conditioned cab, another in a different machine, the truck driver in a cabin.”

Mahar affirmed farming operations were carried out in a contactless way and said: “We need state governments and commonwealth to come together and recognise the uncooperative behaviour being exhibited at the moment is having an impact on farmer’s livelihood and rural and regional communities’ wellbeing.”

Gribble said the need to sort labour and logistics problems was paramount not only for those whose livelihoods depended on the harvest, but also for consumers to have food on their table, and for the huge export dollars agriculture provides the Australian economy.

“We try our best but no business can operate with the left hand tied behind the back to the right ankle.”

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