National Lost Crop Register surpasses $45 million in losses at farmgate value due to worker shortage

Watermelons left to rot due worker shortage

Seasonal workforce numbers are dwindling due to pandemic border closures.

The new National Lost Crop Register reported $45 million in losses in its first eight weeks.

Supermarket prices are tipped to increase as the cost of the shrinking food supply is passed on to consumers.

The deterioration of the seasonal workforce is having devastating impacts on the Australian horticultural industry, and with the worse yet to come, it is consumers who will wear the cost.

Last week, the National Lost Crop Register surpassed $45 million in losses at farmgate value. The most concerning factor is the register has only been open since December last year. In the last eight weeks there have only been 65 separate crop losses reported, with more than 85,000 agricultural businesses across Australia.

Imported food only accounts for 15 per cent of Australia’s daily food supply, meaning the tightening of supply will likely be felt across major retailers, with supermarket prices tipped to increase.

Watermelons slashed and buried

Watermelon grower Tony Vrankovich has been growing for the past 30 years in the Carnarvon Horticulture District, but after slashing and ploughing in his crop, the demoralisation is too much.

Man in high vis search holds watermelon.

Tony Vrankovich, Carnarvon watermelon grower saw three months work and money “disintegrate” before his eyes.(ABC Rural: James Liveris)

Mr Vrankovich said he would look for another job. “It’s been pretty hard; we’ve all struggled big time with labour and a lot of us have lost a lot of crop,” he said. At Mr Vrankovich’s plantation, there was one hectare worth of watermelons, with more than 100 tonnes of fruit to be picked.

More than 40 per cent of that went to waste and was ploughed into the ground, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in loss. Mr Vrankovich said it was disheartening. “It is something you’ve looked after for three months, poured a lot of money into it and in the end, you can’t pick it,” he said.

“It seems like it just disintegrates in front of your eyes.”

Due to the climate in the Gascoyne region, Carnarvon can pick up windows in the fruit and vegetable market where other areas are unable to produce, however, Mr Vrankovich said he would not take that opportunity.

“I am not going to plant, I can’t, I can’t take that chance,” he said. “I am pretty sure there are going to be less workers in the future and I am very sceptical that I’d be able to even plant a crop, let alone pick it. “Seriously, at the moment I am cleaning up, but then I’m going to go to Perth to try find a job, and if I like it, I will leave the farm.

Vegetables on display at supermarket.

Could Australia “end up a nation of imported fruit and veg”?(ABC South West: Zoe Keenan)

National crop numbers dwindling

The loss of Mr Vrankovich’s watermelon crop is not a one-off story — every week the horticultural industry bears the brunt of a dried-up workforce. Richard Shannon is manager of policy and advocacy at Growcom, a peak industry body who represent the National Farmers Federation Horticultural council, he said the worst is yet to come.

“To date, Queensland has recorded losses of up to $33 million, New South Wales $8 million, and Western Australia $2 million,” he said. “We expect the numbers to be far greater.
“I know personally there are larger growers that have not made reports to the register.”

Mr Shannon said he expected the situation would continue to deteriorate throughout the year.

“Until we get to the point that more people are joining horticulture than leaving, our situation is going to get worse,” he said.

Workers? No end in sight

Carnarvon Western Australia grower Darryl Hardman, checks his bananas.(ABC Rural: Lucie Bell)
Darryl Hardman is the owner of Desert Sweet Bananas, the biggest banana plantation in Carnarvon.

His packhouse operates every week of the year with much of his produce finding the shelves of the major retailers. Mr Hardman said the biggest frustration was the lack of workers.

“We’ve been losing fruit trying to keep up,” he said.

“We are losing about 300 cartons a week. “Obviously, there are no backpackers, the ones that are here have done their 88 days in the field — they are going to leave, so we need another incentive to get people here.

“In the short term, we know there are a lot of workers in the Pacific nations, they are willing, they want to come out, the biggest problem is the cost. “Mr Hardman said the initial quarantine of one worker cost $4,000. “On-farm quarantining should be option in Western Australia, if other states are allowed,” he said.

“The process of bringing in a worker itself is a minefield, that needs to be streamlined. “There has got to be places where we can cut these costs down, otherwise we are going to end up a nation of imported fruit and veg.”


Watermelons left to rot due worker shortage
Watermelons left to rot due worker shortage


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