Tasmanian farmer warns apples will be left to rot on trees due to worker shortage

Tasmanian farmer warns apples will be left to rot on trees due to worker shortage

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Tasmanian orchardist John Brown is struggling to get workers to pick fruit despite a special deal by the Government to fly in workers to the state from the Pacific Islands.

Based at Sassafras, on Tasmania’s north-west coast, the cherry and apple grower was due to employ 18 Pacific Island staff, but still needs about 150 workers for the apple harvest.

“We finished picking the cherries … but it’s been a major headache getting staff,” Mr Brown said.

Fruit Growers Tasmania said the Government’s effort to help fly in international workers has helped relieve some of the strain caused by shortages during the pandemic.

A planeload of 160 Pacific Island workers are due out of quarantine on Saturday, making a total of 650 workers who have arrived so far.

The island state has had four flights in total, and they are the last group to fly in, from the special Pacific Island program set up during COVID.

Overseas workers pick raspberries.(ABC Rural: Emma Brown)

Locals ‘not interested’

Mr Brown picks, on average, 10,000 bins of apples each harvest and predicted trouble for the season ahead as already the annual thinning of fruit has hit problems.

“We had 30 people come out from the unemployment department and by the end of the second day we had four,” he said.

“They weren’t interested in doing that type of work.”

Mr Brown was offering $24.80 an hour and had advertisements in the local newspaper and signs on the road every day but had a “very poor response” from locals.

“It’s not as if you are getting a pittance — it’s a reasonable income,” he said.

The ramifications for the harvest in a month’s time are dire.

“Apples are our main crop and I can see there’s going to be hundreds of tonnes of apples left on the tree not picked,” Mr Brown said.

Berry picking holds greater appeal

Peter Cornish standing in an orchard row.
Fruit Growers Tasmania CEO Peter Cornish says more work will be done to help apple growers(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

Peter Cornish, from Fruit Growers Tasmania, said the Pacific Island workforce needed a guaranteed six months work, which made it more suited to berries and the extended harvest, than apple-picking.

“It is a really tough situation for John Brown, his location at Sassafras makes it a little more difficult, it’s just a little away from the major populations,” Mr Cornish said.

“He would normally rely on both the backpackers, who would normally be plentiful in Devonport, but also some seasonal worker program people via some labour-hire companies.

Berry harvest lures workers south

man in berry tunnel next to strawberry plants
Costas, Regional Manager, Cameron Folder says the company has learnt some lessons during COVID about accommodating a more local workforce(ABC Rural: Lachlan Bennett)

In addition to securing Pacific Island workers, Costa, one of the largest employers in the berry industry, deployed several initiatives to lure more locals and get through the peak period.

Regional manager Cameron Folder said the company got twice as many locals this year compared to last.

New initiatives that helped included a move away from online applications, more face-to-face and one-on-one recruitment drives, and bus services to get people to work.

“We’ve still got a long way to go in our season, we’ll go through ’til May,” Mr Folder said.

The company said everything the company learned about attracting locals will inform their future strategies for getting pickers.

Mr Brown said the competing berry harvest added to his difficulties in attracting workers.

“We are unfortunate up the coast here … I’m not knocking Costa, they’re a great company, but they need 2,000 workers out of this area,” Mr Brown said.

“If you take them out of this area, it leaves very few workers left for us to do our work.

“Good on Costa for doing it, they’re creating work but we just haven’t got the volume of people here to do it.”


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