While the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged Tasmania, work was quickly done in the background to grant agriculture an essential service, which helped to future-proof the sector.
These steps helped the agriculture sector to continue to work relatively unscathed, and hit some major milestones this year.
Primary Industries Minister Guy Barnett spoke with The Examiner to reflect on the year that was in agriculture and what farmers can expect in the coming 12 months.
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CJ:We have to start logically, with the impacts the COVID pandemic had on the sector. Can you talk us through that and how the government-assisted?
GB: COVID-19 has had a massive impact on agriculture but rural stakeholders and farmers have responded and risen to the challenge.
Agriculture was quickly identified as an essential service, which allowed essential worker exemptions to be issued where appropriate.
That was a decision that was made right upfront.
As a result of the pandemic, I started weekly meetings with key rural stakeholder groups to discuss any issues so we could get on top of them. While they were weekly during the height of COVID, they have reduced down to fortnightly and monthly.
CJ: Why was that decision made? How important is agriculture to Tasmania?
GB: Agriculture is extremely important to Tasmania, more than in other states. In terms of agricultural production we've delivered 4.5 times more than what we consume in Tasmania, we've certainly punched above our weight. During COVID that's been a terrific response from our farmers.
CJ: One of the major issues that has emerged has been the issue of attracting and retaining seasonal workers due to national and international borders. What government support is in place to support this?
GB: That's in two parts really. So, firstly, we met and responded to stakeholder needs in terms of helping meet their requirements, whether that be in the dairy space with AI technicians, or in the lambing space to get the essential workers into those roles.
So that was supported by the government through the department in the appropriate way with the State Controller.
For the seasonal workers, that's been through a massive partnership between the government and the sector where we've worked shoulder to shoulder to get a plan together early on.
Then we released our $1.9 million package with a whole range of initiatives to help meet the needs of harvesting. That's always been at the forefront of our minds. Our mission was always to get as many Tasmanians into those jobs as possible, so we started our campaign and now we've got double the estimated Tasmanians in those jobs compared to last year.
Instead of an estimated 3000 Tasmanian workers, this year we have 6000.
I call it Team Tasmania, working with the stakeholders and the government to get the job done and get it off to market.
And that's worked really well because it was a major concern for producers.
CJ: With several flights scheduled to arrive from Tonga and other international countries, how many flights and workers in total will there be and will it be enough to fill the shortfall?
GB: There are four flights scheduled to come in over December and January.
In terms of if there will be more, that's up to industry if they need it. Peak season is December and January so it will be reassessed.
I know you have been focused on the flights but we have also been getting seasonal workers to come in from the mainland, who are returning or in some cases have already been r
We're fortunate that the Pacific Islands have been identified as low risk, they have not had one recorded case of COVID-19 and everyone on those flights has recorded a negative test.
But in any event, we have measures in place where they have to do their two-week isolation in government hotels if they do return a positive test.
CJ: A major infrastructure project that will affect producers is the rollout of Tasmania's irrigation schemes, what's next?
GB: We've seen a 30 per cent increase in irrigation rolling out through Tasmanian Irrigation and we have big plans for further rollout of water infrastructure in the next 12 months.
We've now built 16 irrigation schemes out of Australia's 19 schemes in total, so we're very pleased and proud of our efforts.
We have identified another five schemes moving forward that are progressing through water sales and beyond. So those are: the Don, Northern Midlands, Fingal, Tamar and Wesley Vale schemes.
So those five are progressing well, so the Don scheme will have a shovel in the ground by the end of the first quarter of next year and Northern Midlands went to water sales last week.
With our irrigation schemes, agricultural production in Tasmania has increased by 7 per cent which means we're on track to reach our $10 billion goal by 2050.
CJ: What are the government's priorities for the next 12 months for agriculture? Are there specific targets you are hoping to meet?
GB: We still have significant plans to progress beyond the next five irrigation projects. Tranche 3 has scope for 10 schemes and we've announced five.
Trade will also be a key focus for us over the next 12 months, but my colleague Jeremy Rockliff would have more to say on that.
For example, we've just launched three flights a week to Hong Kong to provide fresh produce to maintain and grow our export markets for agriculture and seafood.
Three flights a week until the end of February.
So a key focus for us is to support and increase our freight capacity and diversify our export markets. We have plans to grow freight across Bass Strait, so not just flights, but that's in partnership with the federal government.
We also have our goal to grow agriculture by $1 billion by 2050, so those goals will be progressed in the next 12 months.