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Worker shortage taking a heavy toll on farmers, as well as on their crops

Statewide

International travel restrictions are not only costing Queensland’s horticulture industry millions, they are also impacting the mental health of fruit and vegetable growers, a new report has revealed.

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Crop losses from the labour shortage have more than doubled in the last month, now totalling more than $43 million, according to the National Farmers’ Federation’s Lost Crop register.

Now, a new analysis by peak body GrowCom has found 25 per cent of growers are reporting an associated decline in mental health, with 75 per cent experiencing financial stress.

On Queensland’s Scenic Rim, vegetable grower Mitch Brimblecombe knows the situation well. Still dealing with drought, he now faces another challenge.

“We were about to walk into a field, and I rang my labour contractor and said, ‘Right we need a few extra people,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got no one.’”

With international borders shut, the backpacker workforce that Australia’s fruit and vegetable industry relies on to pick their produce has disappeared.

So too has millions of dollars in income for farmers.

“There’s a lot of growers who haven’t registered or thought about their crop losses because they don’t want to think about it,” Brimblecombe said.

“But that $43 million — [it] could be double that to be honest.”

Growcom have been processing the other information reported by growers on the Lost Crop Register.

“In many cases farmers are harvesting crops themselves, all through the night in some instances, it’s taking a toll on their physical health,” said Growcom’s Richard Shannon.

The GrowCom analysis also found a number of growers reporting they were at risk of foreclosure.

“Watching their produce go to waste, that in many cases they’ve been looking after for 12 months or more — it’s their livelihoods that are at stake here,” Shannon said.

Brimblecombe said that the COVID-induced worker shortage was having a compounding effect.

“Certainly having all those factors come into it,” he said.

“You’ve got drought, bad prices, no labour to harvest your crop — it all takes a toll.”

Industry advocates say they want federal and state governments to increase incentives and expand quarantine.

A spokesperson for the Queensland government said that it continues to offer $1500 payments to people who take up jobs in agriculture, that’s on top of up to $6000 the Federal Government is offering to help with relocation costs.

But as of this week, just 93 people had applied for the Queensland scheme.

GrowCom’s Shannon acknowledges that the pandemic has highlighted the over-reliance on backpacker labour.

He said now was an opportunity to look at long-term labour supply.

One idea being floated is an industry-specific visa that would allow people to come and work during harvest, then return home.

“That’s an idea and a program that’s worked really well with Pacific Island nations,” Shannon said.

Dr Kirsten Hunter has been practising as a clinical psychologist in regional Queensland for 20 years, based in Toowoomba.

“There can be a culture in the agricultural world of not reaching out for psychological support,” Hunter said.

“Of course, the suicide risk amongst the male rural population is a bit scary, very scary.”

But over the years Hunter said she has witnessed a change in behaviour. “I have a lot of farmers as clients, their family have really nudged them to come along initially,” Hunter said.

“They’ve realised this talking business isn’t too bad, and they’ve been able to have a really good outcome.

“There’s definitely an improvement.”

– ABC / Nathan Morris

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