Report: 25 per cent of vegetable producers leave stock to rot due to labour shortages

HARVESTING HEADACHES: Brassicas, such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, need manual labour for harvest.
HARVESTING HEADACHES: Brassicas, such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, need manual labour for harvest.

While a report published this week found a quarter of Australia’s vegetable producers left stock to rot because they did not have enough workers for harvest, Tasmanian producers were not in the same boat.

Report authors said difficulties arose with producers finding enough workers to pick, pack and grade vegetables.

“Around 25 per cent of growers we surveyed have left vegetables unpicked because of a lack of available workers,” the report said.

In addition, “many other vegetable growers have chosen not to increase the scale of production because of an uncertainty of workers being available in the future,” according to the report.

However, Tasmanian producers said nothing was left to rot.

Young’s Vegie Shed, which grows produce at Camdale for its Launceston and Burnie stores, owner Ben Young said he had noticed difficulties with sourcing labour, but it was not costing the business in produce.

“I am noticing a trend that over the last 5-7 years that it’s getting harder to find people to do the jobs. And the people we do find seem to be less motivated,” Mr Young said.

“We have a steady permanent workforce, but put on extras to fill the gaps in peak season. If those [temporary staff] don’t come in we hope they do they next day,” he said.

If casual employees fail to turn up for work in those peak times it can cause stress for the business, but Mr Young said “we manage”.

“We work a day or two ahead, or we might work extra [to make up for lost time]. We’re not really losing anything,” he said.

Wouter Sels from Seven Springs Farm at Lorinna said he had introduced a range of crops to ensure employment all year for his two full-time and one part-time staff members.

“We [harvest] ourselves so it’s not a problem for us. It could be more of a problem for those [producers] who use temporary workers,” Mr Sels said.

“I diversified my crops so I can offer year-round workflow and that works well,” he said.

Mr Sels also mentioned that he paid above award wages and employed local people where possible.

The report noted increasing wages was not an option for all producers.

“… wage pressure is a real issue in the industry, and increasing wages beyond the minimum award rate is not a realistic option for many growers,” the report said.

Carrick producer Graham Dent said machinery was used more often than not to harvest his vegetables, so labour shortages did not affect him like it did others.

“I use backpackers via a contractor for potatoes, but [the contractor] handles the labour,” Mr Dent said.

Tasmanian Farmers & Graziers Association chief executive said he had not heard of producers leaving vegetables to rot in paddocks, but the bigger issue was the impact on business.

“If producers are stopping expansion due to the unavailability of labour, that is more concerning,” Mr Skillern said.

The report, Sustainable Solutions: The Future of Labour Supply in the Australian Vegetable Industry, was commissioned by Horticulture Innovation Australia and written by University of Adelaide and University of Sydney academics.