Australian farmers just as productive with borders closed, study finds

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Australian farmers produced the same amount of fruit and vegetables last year as they did in 2019 despite international borders being closed and the horticulture industry pleading for more workers, a study has found.

Research released today found the number of workers employed on fruit and vegetable farms dropped by eight per cent last year, but output remained relatively unchanged.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) found the number of workers dropped by 11,000 in 2020-21 compared to the year before.

“Despite this, overall horticulture output levels are estimated to have remained relatively steady, partly due to an improvement in seasonal conditions,” ABARES executive director Jared Greenville said.

“Output has also been maintained through a range of adaptations that many horticulture producers made in response to the reduced availability of overseas workers.”

The research, based on farmers surveys, found that horticulture farms employed around 135,000 workers across 2020-21, including family, permanent and contract employees.

ABARES also found that retail prices for fruit and vegetables had remained relatively stable, increasing by just 5 per cent at the check out, despite exceptional growing conditions which can typically drive oversupply and reduced retail prices.

In September last year, an industry commissioned report suggested the farm sector would be 26,000 workers short for the summer harvest because Australia had closed its borders, in response to COVID-19.

Daniel Walton Australian Workers UnionDaniel Walton Australian Workers Union
Daniel Walton from the Australian Workers Union says farmers have overstated the need for foreign workers.(ABC News)

Farmers overstated shortage, unions say

The Australian Workers’ Union said the ABARES findings showed industry had overstated the worker shortage.

“This data proves what our union has been saying for years: the importance of short-term migrant workers has been massively overstated by the farming lobby,” AWU national secretary Daniel Walton said.

“COVID forced farms to get smarter and employ more Australians and – lo and behold – not only did the sky not fall in, productivity actually increased.

“The government should take the hint and tell farmers to try harder to employ Australians on Australian conditions or expand the use of established Pacific visas, before throwing open the floodgates with the new anything-goes agriculture visa.”

working in farm in Australiaworking in farm in Australia
Government commodity forecaster ABARES says the number of workers on horticulture farms fell by 8 per cent last year.(Supplied)

Minister: Australia needs Ag Visa

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the ABARES report “spoke volumes about the resilience and initiative of the horticulture industry”, which maintained output despite the challenges of COVID-19.

Mr Littleproud said Australia still needed a new visa to recruit overseas workers for farms.

“According to ABARES, more than 50 per cent of horticulture farms had difficulties accessing workers over 2020-21. Farmers have been clever and resourceful but it cannot go on forever,” Mr Littleproud said.

“Left unaddressed, we run the risk of shortages of food products on our shelves and that will mean cost increases at the checkout”.

A man with dark hair and glasses is wearing a blue collared shirt at a cattle yard.A man with dark hair and glasses is wearing a blue collared shirt at a cattle yard.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud says if Australia doesn’t address a farm worker shortage “we run the risk of food shortages”.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison committed to establish a new agriculture visa, in return for the Nationals support for a free trade agreement with the UK, which removed the requirement for British backpackers to work on Australian farms.

Despite current bilateral negotiations with four countries — Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia – Australia is so far yet to convince another nation to sign up to the Agriculture Visa.

Shortage could have been worse, farmers say

The National Farmers’ Federation Horticulture council said the ABARES report showed a missed opportunity for the industry to capitalise on positive seasonal conditions.

“Had the industry been able to source the workforce it needed, or even had pre-pandemic worker numbers, it is likely we would have seen significant growth in the horticulture sector,” a spokesperson said.

“Unfortunately because we were not able to access the workforce the industry needed to capitalise on the high yields, it resulted in many crops not being picked.”

The Horticulture Council said last year’s modelling suggested industry could be short up to 26,000 workers was based on the worst case scenario, but the government had restarted the Seasonal Worker Program (SWP), which brought more than 11,000 workers from the Pacific into Australia during the pandemic.

“ABARES indicated the sector was short about 11,000 workers in the end, and that is largely as a result of the restart of the SWP as well as the various incentive based programmes to attract Australians onto farms,” the Horticultural Council said in a statement.

ABARES said that in 2020-21 the number of backpackers employed on farms declined by 26 per cent, and the number of workers employed on worker schemes from the Pacific fell by 9 per cent.