Crop losses stemming from ongoing labour shortages across Australia have topped A$38m, according to reports lodged through the National Lost Crop Register.

The register – designed and developed by Queensland horticultural body Growcom and endorsed by the National Farmers Federation’s Horticulture Council – was launched in mid-December (2020) to capture the cost to industry and the Australian economy from a lack of seasonal workers available to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables.

A total of 55 growers from five separate states and territories have anonymously reported their losses to date. A wide array of crops are represented on the register, including berries, tomatoes, carrots, citrus, bananas, pumpkins, chilli and leafy green vegetables.

'Our belief is that reports to the register so far are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Richard Shannon, manager of policy and advocacy at Growcom.

'This is important evidence that will be used to inform decision-making and improve the ability of industry to collectively advocate for greater government intervention.'

Challenges mount

Leading Australian grower-packer-marketer Fresh Produce Group (FPG) has reported losses of just under A$3m to its Queensland blueberry operations.

Anthony Poiner, executive director of FPG,said despite the company’s best recruitment efforts it was left short 150 harvest staff during its main season, meaning 20ha was left unpicked in orderto concentrate on the rest of the farm.

“I conservatively estimate that we left over 400 tonnes of blueberries out in the field,” Poiner explained. “We put all the effort and cost to grow this crop, and just had to walk away from so much.

'The experience has been very demoralising for our team. We experienced extreme drought, a massive bushfire ripped through one farm, and then when we needed to harvest, we experience these worker shortages.”

Poiner said the challenges weren’t over for FPG, which is currently harvesting raspberries and blueberries in Tasmania, while its grape harvest in Mildura and Western Australia is about to get underway.

The closure of state borders in response to Covid-19 outbreaks has proven particularly problematic, according to Poiner.

'It remains relentlessly challenging to gain full attention of all the levels of authority to allowing us to get the harvest staff to these locations,”he explained.

“One of the more irritating incidents was having a large number of our regular harvest workers, people who have been integral to our harvest team every year, trapped on the New South Wales side (of the border), unable to get across the border despite being in a region with zero Covid-19 cases.

'I just hope we can get the right responses in time so we don’t have to lose more of our crops due to labour shortages.'

Meanwhile, Pinnacle Hill Lychees, located outside Ingham in Queensland, has only been able to recruit two seasonal workers for part of its harvest. The company normally employs upwards of 20 backpackers and 12 contractors for its harvest. As a result, it’s been unable to pick more than half its crop, conservatively worth A$500,000 at farm gate.

Shane Rhea, sales manager at Carter and Spencer, said the losses are being felt throughout the supply chain. Carter and Spencer, the agents for Pinnacle Hill Lychees in the Brisbane Markets, have been left with far less product than expected.

'Based on an inspection of the crop before harvest we were anticipating between 20,000 to 30,000 boxes of fruit from Pinnacle Hill this season, but have received just over 6,000,' said Rhea.

Call to action

Shannonsaid the Australian horticulture industry has been warning of a coming labour shortage and advocating solutions since last March, when international travel bans were put in place.

'We have welcomed incentives offered by governments to Australian citizens and permanent residents to encourage them to take up harvest roles, including assistance for relocating and early access to additional financial support,' Shannon said.

'We have also welcomed efforts to create a safe pathway into the country for workers from the Pacific Islands and Timor-Leste who have traditionally undertaken harvest jobs in our industry.

'But clearly we need to do more. Without urgent action our labour supply situation will only continue to deteriorate and growers will keep losing crops until international travel reaches the same scale it was before the pandemic, expected to be more than two years away.

'As a priority we have to expand our capacity for Pacific Islanders and East Timorese to safely enter Australia and take up job offers. We know there are many workers keen to get started, but right now there's a big bottleneck getting through state and territory-based quarantine.'

Shannon called for an expansion of the Trans-Tasman bubble, allowing workers from Pacific Island nations to enter Australia outside the current quarantine pathways.

“These changes would allow states to be able to bring in workers from Covid-free Pacific Island nations at scale and have confidence that the people coming into the country are safe,” Shannon said.

“With 22,000 pre-vetted workers in the Pacific Islands and the fact that these nations have been decimated by the lack of tourism, this serves as a genuine win-win for industry and our Pacific neighbours.”