‘Struggle’ season ahead as picker concerns intensify
CONCERNS are growing for North Burnett farmers around employing enough pickers for the upcoming season as the ripples from the COVID-19 pandemic begin to bear fruit.
With Australia's international borders virtually closed for the past six months and international travellers returning to their home countries, growers hold fears that a backpacker shortage will hit hard.
Gayndah mandarin orchardist Russell Baker said the main issue they're facing as the picking season approaches is attracting people to the region for work.
"It's gonna be really tough, I'm a pretty small grower so I'll certainly be picking slower than I would've otherwise and I think that's going to be the case for a lot of other growers," Mr Baker said.
"The whole season is going to be slowed down through that lack of staff."
Mr Baker said his orchard normally requires 14 pickers during the harvest.
"I don't expect to be able to find 14 but if I can find eight I would still be able to get through," he said.
Mr Baker has currently employed a handful of local workers, but will need to hire more in time for the thinning at the end of this month.
"We have even started in small ways already with the few staff that I've got just to try and get an early start and try and get ahead of it," he said.
"For me, I will be able to get through with the staff I can find, but the big growers are really going to struggle.
"There could even be fruit that won't be harvested."
When asked if the lack of Gayndah rental vacancies for pickers is of concern, Mr Baker said he is more worried about finding workers in the first place.
"We normally employ backpackers and they would normally stay in caravan parks but they're just not going to be available," he said.
"I do have a guy that's got family that might come up and I've got onsite accommodation for them.
"So the accommodation issue for me won't be as much of an issue, but certainly for bigger farms it will be."
Billie Harris is another citrus farmer who has begun to fear the availability of work staff for the approaching picking season.
Ms Harris normally employs up to 16 workers and hires the bulk of them in March.
"I'm hoping we will get some come through," Ms Harris said.
"I've had previous workers contact me who are applying for their third visa so there are few still here, but not the amount that's normally in the country."
Ms Harris said her farm used to employ high school children or school leavers and she hopes they will start to take an interest again.
"We always had someone's kid out here or someone wanting to get a bit of pocket money while they're away from uni or in school," she said.
"We never get one inquiry anymore."
Ms Harris said she will be interested to see if they reach out for work opportunities this year.
"There would certainly be some work out here," she said.