SYDNEY, AAP – As some NSW farmers head into what’s expected to be one of their best harvests in 90 years, a severe labour shortage is continuing to bite.
But in an innovative attempt to try and help growers, thousands of public servants will soon be able to get five days leave in an effort to fill the shortages during this year’s harvest.
Domestic and international border restrictions have left the state’s farmers struggling to find labourers, the latest in a string of challenges – including drought, bushfires and a mouse plague – that have beset the industry.
Deputy Premier Paul Toole told AAP the initiative was only one of the many innovative approaches the NSW government was trying to tackle the “big problem” of labour shortages, and he said it was the first time he’d heard of such a scheme.
“We can have a bumper crop but if you can’t get the crops off .. that’s going to have a massive impact on farmers,” the newly-minted Nationals leader told AAP.
“It might just be driving a chaser bin, it might be driving a harvester – we’re just trying to get the bodies on the ground to be able to assist our farmers right now that need this support.”
Those who work for the Department of Regional NSW, which includes local land services and the NSW Department of Primary Industry, will be eligible for the scheme.
Up to 80 per cent of the staff who work for Department of Regional NSW are based in the regions and it’s estimated more than 4500 will be eligible to apply.
Mr Toole said he’s sure many of them will be keen to lend a hand.
“We know a lot of people who have got family and friends who own or work on farms, so I’m expecting there to be a reasonable take up for people to go and help those who are really desperate for that support right now,” he told AAP.
The scheme will be at no cost to the farmer, and will operate in a similar way to employees accessing leave to perform volunteer work.
“These workers can volunteer to help out with any harvest, anywhere in the state – from harvesting blueberries in Coffs Harbour, oranges and table grapes in the Riverina and Murray, to cherries in the Central West or helping bring in a bumper grain harvest,” Mr Toole said.
NSW Farmers President James Jackson said any efforts to bolster the harvest workforce were welcome, but the initiative was unlikely to put a real dent in the shortage.
“We’ve been highlighting the dire need to improve access to harvest workers for weeks now, and this will certainly help, but cherry growers, for example, need workers for five weeks, not one,” Mr Jackson said.
“There is a shortfall of at least 10,000 harvest workers this season, and that’s because of the COVID restrictions we’ve had in place.”
NSW Farmers wants the government to consider trialling on-farm quarantine for double vaccinated international workers, with the current rules costing $1500 per head.
Public servants aren’t the only ones being called on to help growers hamstrung by labour shortages, with retired soldiers also being urged to swap their fatigues for farm gear and volunteering their skills.