More needs to be done to overcome fruit industry labour shortage

Berries Australia has welcomed the extension of the skilled visa program but says government needs to go further to address the underlying farm labour shortage.

The change involves moving most agricultural occupations from the short-term list to the regional occupations list which makes visa holders eligible for a four-year visa, double the current term.

Executive Director of Berries Australia, Rachel Mackenzie said that growers in many regions welcomed this decision as the two year turn over for their more senior staff resulted in significant disruption to their businesses.

“However. the government decision only covers skilled occupations and not unskilled labour such as fruit-picking. A new Agriculture Visa or improved Pacific Seasonal Workers program would address farm labour shortages by allowing farmers to hire a dedicated overseas workforce on a temporary basis” said Mackenzie.

The $1.4 billion berry category is now the single largest fresh produce category in Australia and consumption is increasing across the county. To continue to grow, the berry industry needs access to reliable workers and this announcement will go some way toward meeting these needs.

“Berries Australia is committed to ensuring that growers can access an effective workforce to meet their needs, as part of that we are keen to look at ways to increase the number of Australians employed on farm.”

“It may seem counter-intuitive but being able to access the skills we need from overseas means that berry businesses can be more profitable and in turn, employ more locals”, Ms Mackenzie said.

Australian berry industry gets funding boost

Australia’s berry industry has received a $650,000 funding boost from the federal government.

The assistance package aims to restore consumer confidence following the recent spate of incidents of tampering with strawberries and other fruits.

Berries Australia Limited is a joint venture of the Australian Blueberry Growers’ Association, Raspberries and Blackberries Australia, and Strawberries Australia, representing more than 700 growers, ranging from major horticultural enterprises and multi-site agribusinesses to local cooperatives and independent farms.

In total, the growers’ annual output of 109,000 tonnes of berries represents a gross return of $1.05 billion farmgate value in the national economy.

READ: Queensland research station helps farmers produce better strawberries

Berries Australia chairman Peter McPherson said the recent impact on strawberry growers showed the economic vulnerability of Australian farmers to sabotage beyond their control.

“Australia has a well-earned reputation internationally for the quality of our fresh produce and the safety standards and care taken by our growers.

“Our farmers are proud of the freshness and quality of what they grow and want their produce to go on sale in the same condition that it left the farm” said McPherson.

“Consumer confidence at home and overseas is critical for Australia’s reputation as a source of safe fresh food and a lot is currently being invested in promoting both on-farm safeguards and the systems in place from farmgate to consumer.

“It is also important to remember that the strawberries incident was beyond the influence and control of growers and it’s essential that any program developed is national, integrated and based on the real needs of the horticulture sector, and doesn’t impose more costs on farmers already struggling in a tough environment,” he said.

Berries Australia members supply supermarket chains, non-aligned retailers, food service and restaurants, and Berries Australia has a strong focus on expanding export markets of Australian berries.

Berries are grown in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia enabling year-round production and supply to consumers.