Fruit and vegetables could become more expensive unless critical labour shortages are filled, with young Australians being urged to pick up the slack.
Under a bipartisan push for school leavers and university students to take a gap year at home, student debt discounts would be given in exchange for farm work.
The parliamentary committee recommended the government provide HECS/HELP loan concessions on top of wages from agricultural work.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the government was working on incentives to lure young people to regional Australia.
“Have a look at Australia, put a quid in your pocket, come back and be able to help us get through this shortage that we’re going to have in the coming months,” he told 2GB radio on Wednesday.
The committee also wants the government to allow dole recipients to keep getting JobSeeker while working in low-paid farm roles.
The temporarily boosted JobSeeker will be cut to $815 a fortnight from September 25.
Mr Littleproud said the change would coincide with people being able to earn $1257 in a two-week period without losing access to the benefit.
He claimed people could earn up to $3800 a week picking strawberries in Queensland as he downplayed concerns about worker exploitation.
Mr Littleproud is also considering ways to entice grey nomads into farm labour.
Liberal MP Julian Leeser, who chaired the parliamentary committee, said young people were needed to serve the nation harvesting produce.
“Too often Australians see Berlin before they see Bundaberg. We wanted to change that. This is a great opportunity,” he told Sky News.
He said a “gap year at home” campaign could help bridge the city-country divide.
Central Queensland farmer Craig Pressler told the inquiry he was ripping out 100 hectares of mandarin trees, worth about 15 per cent of annual revenue, because of worker shortages.
“Australia as a country can’t afford to have that sort of loss of production,” Mr Leeser said.
“That will have a flow on effect to prices of fruit and vegetables if that’s repeated across the country.”
Without workers to pick the fruit, the trees are being removed to guard against pests and other biosecurity risks.
There were 150,000 backpackers in Australia at the start of the year but the figure is now closer to 70,000 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The horticulture industry estimates that working holiday-makers are worth $13 billion to Australia’s economy.