Citrus trees have been ripped out of the ground in central Queensland due to critical labour shortages likened to a natural disaster costing millions.
Craig Pressler owns and manages Emerald’s 2PH Farms, which is one of the largest privately-owned mandarin orchards in the southern hemisphere.
He likened the impact of labour shortages to Cyclone Yasi uprooting valuable fruit and vegetable crops across the region.
“I view this as similar to a natural disaster. We’ve got this disaster with this pandemic and the lack of labour in every industry,” Mr Pressler told a parliamentary inquiry on Friday.
Citrus, cherries, stone fruit, table grapes, tomatoes and strawberries are likely to be affected.
Mr Pressler is three quarters through removing 100 hectares of mandarin trees because of worker shortages, which have left open the risk of pest infestations and biosecurity risks.
That’s expected to cost more than $5 million or about 15 per cent of annual revenue.
Aside from 1400 hectares of citrus, 2PH also has 240 hectares of table grapes which will be ready to be harvested in November and December.
But just half the 800 workers needed across Queensland’s central highlands are available at this stage.
Mr Pressler is urging the state government to let people from Pacific nations come to the region under the Seasonal Worker Program paused due to coronavirus.
Many of the countries have not detected the disease, with more than 160 workers from Vanuatu last month brought into the Northern Territory to pick mangoes under a trial.
Victorian Nationals MP Damian Drum said trees being pulled out was a shocking state of affairs.
“This is something normally done as an absolute last resort. The cost of that is phenomenal,” he said.
Mr Drum floated sweeteners for Australians to fill gaps, including incentives for grey nomads, waiving HECS debts for students and allowing people to retain unemployment benefits while working.
Mr Pressler also defended claims worker exploitation was rife across the horticulture industry.
He said the Fair Work Ombudsman cleared his company after a “vexatious” claim against it earlier in the year.
“It would be naive to think there’s not some rogue operators in there and people that are not doing the right things,” he said.
“It irritates us and our organisation if there are people out there that are giving industry a bad name. It reflects on all of us.”