A Victorian table grape grower admits the COVID-19 pandemic, which has continued for more than 16 months now, is pushing Australian farmers to the limit.
State restrictions have intensified across most of Australia in the past two months, with either lockdowns or domestic border restrictions coming back into force. The uncertainty of not knowing the exact conditions of the market that they will be operating in, as well as the severely reduced workforce and lack of information from the government about when solutions or help will arrive, is very concerning, according to Budou Farms Co-Owner Enrique Rossi.
“Farming it is not easy as it looks; we know that and we can deal with the traditional ups and downs, but COVID is pushing growers to the limit,” he said. “Growers are very stressed, there are more farms for sale in the market and a clear uncertainty on the market response for the upcoming season. A daily shrinking of the workforce and probably a global economy more fragile than before requires quick and tangible actions before the summer starts. Extra shifts, not just hours, are the new normal ahead; a lack of workers is taking its toll on people. Most input costs are increasing, putting big pressure on returns in markets that are uncertain by the time of harvest, making it very hard to prepare for this scenario, as if you cut corners, you lose quality and then someone can take your share.”
In June, the Australian government announced a new farm work visa will be offered to residents from 10 South-East Asian nations to help Australian farmers harvest their crops, which traditionally relies heavily on a foreign workforce each year. Mr Rossi says it remains a waiting game as to when farmers will actually see the benefits.
“There were big announcements for ASEAN visas, but no information about who will be able to access it and most important when,” Mr Rossi said. “Luring workers with bonus and free handouts seems the logical way to attract people, however, once a new option opens for free money they move regardless. So productivity and competitiveness are just words in the air. The worst part is the lack of vision of the government and people who can do something. For the last two years, we are living in a fortress. Celebrities and selected people are coming in, but we are restricted in our ability to do business overseas as we can not get out. (The authorities are) still not thinking forward, no proper quarantine facilities, no clear information, no dates. Some intentions of help are in place, however, again reactive, late and only for a few.”
He added that Budou Farms, located in Merbein South, in western Victoria, did well this last season, selling all of its grapes and managed to get workers to harvest while “surfing” the weather conditions.
“We were very proactive since day one, but months ahead or thinking in next harvest, got us worried, lack of labour and quality of it, climate change, shipping uncertainty, give us just a few options to think and prepare of,” Mr Rossi said. “Thinking ahead, crop load management will be the way to deal this year, make it easier, make it fast.”
But Mr Rossi says the pandemic has taught farmers valuable lessons particularly that Australia has too much red tape, which is unnecessary and making us less competitive.
“We can do a few things remotely and this should stay this way, export registrations and most paperwork should be online aiming to reduce cost and time,” he said. “So much information can be given in electronic ways. Also, the lack of workers is not only a phenomenon of Australian Agriculture Industries, as all Industries are affected across Australia. On-farm accommodation is a fundamental help during this time, but very challenging to carry on due bureaucracy, just to get the simplest things, for example, a toilet on the farm. In addition, some institutions keep doing the same campaigns just to tick the box, but no innovation and no value-added therefore no tangible results.”
Budou Farms would like to see more direct consultation with growers, and for the growers, before making decisions that could affect them. Mr Rossi says many decisions are made by a minority, or behind closed doors, and there are too many “actors” in the chain of decision, so information is lost or not clear for the ones who really need it.
“We need tangible results,” Mr Rossi said. “We need workers and an ag visa, supported tax incentives for workers thinking in long term solutions. We need investment and facilitation in technology, as in the end will save on labour and will skill up people in the long run. The Lack of accommodation will be an issue post-pandemic, as currently hostels and accommodation alike are struggling or already closed. Due to the range of visas, there are people taxed in different tiers for the same job and similar income, but all in rural conditions, therefore 1 unified lower tax incentive would really attract people to live and work in rural areas. So, we need flexible arrangements and help to all size agriculture businesses, not only corporations.”
Bur despite all the challenges, farmers never let down the consumers, nor transport, but Mr Rossi says there needs to be a change of strategies in all businesses, especially in how to deal with a new generation of workers post-pandemic.
“Despite the uncertain times and sentiment with it, I do think Agriculture in Australia has a big future but requires some surgery, not just band-aids,” he said. “Many people look down agriculture, but forget we are the primary Industry and we eat daily thanks to it. Even during these hard times, I am very confident farmers are strong and will keep this noble profession feeding the world. For the table grape growers and our challenges, every day is one day closer to the end of COVID even though we do not know the exact date – it’s like thinking on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”