Australia's strawberry farmers are crying out for more seasonal workers

As the federal government plans to fast track more seasonal workers from overseas onto Australian farms amid COVID-19 travel bans, for many it's already too late with growers having to destroy up to half of their spring crops.

Farmer Ray Daniels and Guido Ximenes from Timor Leste.

Farmer Ray Daniels and Guido Ximenes from Timor Leste. Source: SBS Matthew Guest

Guido Ximenes is a 29-year-old seasonal worker from Timor Leste who works all day under the hot Queensland sun picking strawberries.

He starts just after sunrise and by the end of a busy day has collected hundreds of kilograms of the juicy red fruit for transport to markets and shopping centres across the country.

But, he says, it's worth it. 

“I have 12 brothers and sisters,” he says while taking a lunch break on the Wamuran property. “I am helping them to build a house and pay for my younger brothers to study.”

Guido Ximenes with a box of ripe strawberries.
Source: SBS Matthew Guest

Mr Ximenes's family live in Timor Leste’s coffee-producing Ainaro region. Coffee makes up almost one-quarter of the Timor Leste economy and about 200,000 people there rely on coffee cultivation as their main source of income.

But coffee pickers, like many South-East Asian and Pacific workers, earn a fraction of an Australian salary. 

“I like to stay on the farm, the work is good,” Mr Ximenes says.

Strawberry farmer Ray Daniels counts himself lucky to have about 50 seasonal workers supporting him.

"They have saved us. We are right on the wire at the moment,” he says.

Australia's strawberry farmers are crying out for more seasonal workers

The second-generation strawberry grower has four million plants under cultivation across two properties.

“Today we will probably bring in around 35 tonnes of strawberries and it is a very labour-intensive operation,” he says.

But he is short on staff. 

“We need 150 [seasonal workers] to make sure this farm operates properly, but we don't have 150.”

Mr Daniels says seasonal workers on his farm are paid for what they pick and Mr Ximenes can earn about $2,300 per week before tax, with $120 deducted for rent. 

Seasonal work reforms

The federal government announced reforms this week to the Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program, which bring workers to regional Australia from Pacific nations.

More than 27,000 Pacific Islanders are ready to work in Australia, the government says, but quarantine arrangements and caps on international arrivals are preventing the majority from getting here.     

A new Agricultural Visa responding to workforce shortages on Australian farms will be in place by the end of this month. It is expected to double the number of Pacific and Timorese workers in Australia to more than 24,000.

The National Farmers Federation welcomes the new visa, which it has campaigned for in recent years.

"However, many Australian farmers are in a desperate situation," says its president Fiona Simson.

"And we are unlikely to see any benefits from the new visa this season."

More seasonal workers are urgently needed.
Source: SBS Matthew Guest

The NFF has also tried to encourage more Australians to help with the spring harvest.

"Despite trying really hard, the farms are often in remote regional locations, so we do depend on labour coming in from other countries for this seasonal agricultural work," Ms Simson says. 

"Seasonal workers get the harvest down in Australia. They love coming to Australia and working hard. They love earning as much money as they can to send home to their families." 

Crisis after crisis

Almost half of Australia’s $430 million annual strawberry yield comes from Queensland and September is the peak harvest season. 

But the shortage of workers is not the only challenge farmers are facing. Strawberry growers in particular have struggled in recent years, first with drought and then a needle crisis.

Spring is the peak season for strawberry growers.
Source: SBS Matthew Guest

“We took a $4 million hit when that [needle] incident occurred,” Mr Daniels says. “It meant we struggled with our overdraft and we were trying to pull it back in financially.”

After winter rains, Mr Daniels was among many counting on a bumper spring crop to pay down debt, but low prices mean fields of ripe fruit are uneconomical to pick.

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A rise in online ordering and the closure of cafes and restaurants during COVID-19 lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne are blamed for the price falls.

Now, Mr Daniels is among many farmers spraying out healthy plants.

“We have knocked out about 1.5 million plants now, and turnover is around half what it should be,” he says. 

Strawberry grower Adrian Schultz and his wife Mandy.
Source: Supplied Adrian Schultz

At a nearby strawberry farm, owner Adrian Schultz is also spraying fields of fruit.

“My wife Mandy and I have made the hard decision to walk away from 42,000 plants, which is basically half our farm,” says Mr Schultz, who is also president of the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association.

“It is devastating. We have never before considered spraying out our plants at this busy time. But we had to make that decision otherwise we will go broke.

“It is a slow-moving trainwreck and it is going to get worse.” 

The National Farmers Federation says summer fruit and vegetable prices may skyrocket due to worker shortages and state border closures during the pandemic. 

"If we can't get people [on farms] to pick the fruit, if we can't get the workers to move between farms interstate, if we can't get the trucks to get from paddock to consumer, then we will end up with a shortage and that will be a price rise," Ms Simson says.

"It has a huge impact on the viability of farmers and rural and regional communities that depend on these small industries." 

Farmer Mr Schultz can only appeal to shoppers to take a few extra punnets of strawberries home, while they can.

“Buy a couple of kilos, that is what we are asking people to do, and put them in the freezer.” 

Update: This article has been updated to include earning potential for workers on Mr Daniels' farm. 

Published 18 September 2021 at 8:25am
By Sandra Fulloon
Source: Small Business Secrets