The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has confirmed that the severe labour shortages in the horticulture sector have led to a fall in horticulture production across the country.
According to ABARES, the lack of supply in overseas harvest workers, particularly from the Working Holiday Maker program, will result in a forecast drop in fruit production by as much as 17% and vegetable production by around 2%.
This drop in production will ultimately impact consumers, with ABARES forecasting prices to increase between 7-29%.
The National Farmers’ Federation Horticulture Council, which is made up of 20 of the largest industry bodies representing horticulture, has highlighted the concerns of a lack of harvest labour since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The situation is only getting worse for our horticulture growers across the country,” NFF Horticulture Council Executive Officer Tyson Cattle said.
“Our growers are in desperate need for harvest labour and have been for the better part of a year.”
ABARES showed that the number of Working Holiday Makers had declined 64% in 2020 and numbers were likely to continue to decline, as there is no end in sight on international borders reopening.
Since the pandemic began, there has been a range of policy changes by government, including visa extensions and relocation assistance, but still growers remain well short of the thousands of harvest workers the industry requires.
“Industry has been focused heavily on the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme largely due to the lack of take up by domestic workers to look for roles within horticulture,” Mr Cattle said.
“Growers will always prefer to employ locally, however even the generous incentives on offer from governments have failed to attract the quantity of workers we need.
“Industry is committed to increasing the number of seasonal workers to help support our Pacific neighbours through this difficult time, as they have been decimated by the pandemic due to the lack of tourism.
“Our critical issue remains that we need to bring in numbers at scale and immediately.”
ABARES forecasts the value of Australian horticulture to drop to just $12.8 billion, a far cry from the predicted $20 billion it needs to be for agriculture to reach its $100 billion goal.
“Horticulture was predicted to be the growth industry as part of our $100 billion goal by 2030 for Australian agriculture,” he said.
“However, if we can’t access an efficient, competent and reliable workforce to get the crop picked and packed, we will struggle to reach that goal.”
Industry is continuing to urge governments to increase its quarantine capacity and prioritise bringing in seasonal workers, or face a declining horticulture sector and increased prices for the consumer.