Labour shortage hangs over bumper winter crop harvest

Liz Wells, September 8, 2021

A shortage of skilled header and machinery operators is causing headaches for farmers gearing up for a bumper winter crop harvest.

GRAIN growers are becoming increasingly desperate to secure labour for the fast-approaching winter crop harvest as COVID restrictions and border closures cut off the usual supply of interstate and overseas workers.

From unskilled and semi-skilled workers through to high-tech header operators, the industry is facing a widespread shortage of workers at a time when many cropping regions are gearing up for a potentially record harvest.

In Western Australia where harvest labour is extremely short, WAFarmers grains president, Mic Fels, said the sector had been working hard to resolve the issue, but with little success.

Mic Fels

“We have been lobbying the State and Federal Governments for nearly three months on getting a quarantine solution for foreign workers,” he said.

“Initially we proposed on-farm quarantine but that didn’t get anywhere.

“The State Government proposed Christmas Island which we endorsed, but the Federal Government said ‘No’. Then the Federal Government came back and said what about Bladin Village (in Darwin) in the Northern Territory?

“The WA Minister for Agriculture contacted the Northern Territory Government and they seemed to be able to thrash something out, but it hasn’t had the buy-in from the WA Treasurer, who is also the Premier. So, that plan hasn’t gone anywhere.

“So, after all this time we pretty much have nothing to show for it.”

Mr Fels said WA typically relied on specialised header operators and tractor drivers coming in from overseas.

“There is a large number of people with those skills in the state, but we obviously need more, so we usually bring them in from places like Europe, North America and New Zealand. But this year they can’t get here. There will be a lot of machines without skilled people to operate them,” he said.

Scaled back operations

Mr Fels said “you can’t make people out of thin air”, so many farmers will be cutting back their operations and running fewer machines at harvest which means harvest is likely to be drawn out and more subject to crop downgrade and weather risk.

On his own farm near Esperance he will cut back from four headers to three and will probably have two chaser bins instead of three.

“There will be fewer trucks around. I know people who run their own will park one up,” he said.

“Generally, the jobs the owner/manager does won’t be happening because they will be driving the machines. So, there won’t be the oversight and anybody checking.

“These are the sorts of corners that are going to have to be cut. That will lead to loss on a broad scale.”

Safety concerns

Mr Fels said he was concerned that the need to scale back and rely on less experienced operators would create safety issues on many farms.

“There will be kids driving 600 horsepower machines when they get home from school, and there will be elderly people driving them as well. Inexperienced people will be driving the machines. We’ll be crossing our fingers and toes that nobody gets hurt or injured,” he said.

“So, it is a frightening prospect. It will mean a delayed harvest and will cost the economy money.”

Creative solutions

GrainGrowers chair Brett Hosking, said the labour shortage was across all harvest sectors, but was particularly acute for skilled labour and header operators.

“We just don’t have access to those Northern Hemisphere skilled header and machinery operators that we do in a world that doesn’t involve COVID,” he said.

“Growers are looking at creative solutions to try to fill that void, but the reality is we know that whatever measures we put in place will be nothing compared to having those experienced people on the team.

“All states are feeling it in one way or another. Maybe on the east coast there is more population out of work and may be looking for opportunities to find their way into the industry, but certainly no-one with skills in operating the machinery.”

Mr Hosking said farmers were scrambling to hire whoever they could.

“They are recognising the fact they are going to have to spend a bit more time training and upskilling some workers. Possibly their productivity is going to be reduced with just learner operators. Farmers have factored that in where they can,” he said.

“We are seeing a lot of innovative solutions – retirees finding the opportunity to spend time out of lockdown in capital cities operating machines on a farm. I’ve even heard school teachers are making the commitment after school hours to jump on a header for a couple of hours in the evening to give someone a break to go and have dinner.”

Mr Hosking said adding to the difficulties was the challenge of state border restrictions.

“I’ve heard of a contractor in Donald (in central Victoria) who has got headers up into Queensland, but can’t get an operator up there,” he said.

Harvest assist program

Queensland AgForce grains president, Brendan Taylor, said a potentially big harvest was set to create logistical problems with staff, trucks and headers.

He said harvest labour was a particular concern, but he was pleased the recently-launched Operation Grain Harvest Assist program that sought to entice retired Australian Defence Force personnel to sign up for harvest work had gathered momentum.

“There has been a lot of activity on Facebook pages and Instagram with people advertising for staff and people putting their hands up saying they are looking for work. So, that is positive,” he said.

“The whole purpose of that program is to put people looking for work and people looking for staff in touch with each other.”

Grain handlers recruiting

The nation’s grain handlers are also looking for harvest staff and have put out the call for ‘grey nomads’, students and travellers to fill their casual positions.

South Australia-based Viterra has been fielding applications for 1500 seasonal positions across SA and western Victoria.

In WA the CBH Group, which each year hires about 1800 seasonal workers, has been recruiting widely.

Eastern grain handler GrainCorp has been offering jobs that include general labouring, grain sampling, weighbridge operations and laboratory support to fill the 3000-plus positions for casual workers this year.



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