Farmers look for support scheme to keep workers when floods wipe out crops

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The impact of recent floods on Lockyer Valley farmers has gone beyond crops losses as they look for ways to retain their farm workers as they rebuild towards the next harvest.

As earthmovers rumble across the fertile black soil of Lockyer Valley in southern Queensland,  repairing and re-levelling the recently flooded farmland, farmers count their largest cost: labour.

As they reel from their second flood in 11 weeks, many Lockyer Valley growers are facing the prospect of ploughing their ruined produce into the ground.

This task alone is a sombre one, only worsened by the fact these growers can’t afford to keep the staff they had on ready to pick it.

Losses up to $1m

Shannon Moss, who grows a range of salads and spinach near Mulgowie, east of Toowoomba, said this recent flood came at the worst possible time.

“By nine o’clock, the creek was flowing pretty well,” he said. 

At that stage, he knew he was in for a long night.

“We got the main flooding at about four o’clock, about half an hour before daylight. That’s probably the worst time to get flooding because you don’t know how bad it really is.”

When the sun came up, Shannon Moss saw water and silt laying across his rows of ready-to-harvest cos lettuce, and his concrete gully-crossing smashed through the middle, with a one-tonne pipe swept downstream.

man in hi vis shirt standing in front of a flood damaged landscapeman in hi vis shirt standing in front of a flood damaged landscape
Shannon Moss lost almost all of his ready-to-harvest cos lettuce and baby spinach in the most recent flood of the Lockyer Valley.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

He anticipates that crop losses alone will cost him close to $1million, but the most heartbreaking part of his day following the flood was having to let go of  14 staff.

“Generally, at this time of year, in full production. We’d carry about 24 staff,” he said. Basically, it will be 80 per cent [that we let go of].”

The decision to cut his workforce was not easy for Mr Moss to make, but with hardly any crops left to harvest, he was left with no alternative.

A lose-lose situation for growers

Growcom Chair Belinda Adams said letting go of staff was a Catch-22 for farmers like Shannon Moss, who could not afford to keep labour but could not afford to lose it, either.

“To find skilled people in the labour shortages we have at the moment is incredibly difficult within itself,” Ms Adams said.

“To look at bringing in new staff again and train them up, you’re looking at that taking a period of a couple of months when the planting program is only taking four to six weeks.”

“I’ve taken calls from growers today absolutely devastated by the capacity to find labour, having to plough crops in [to the ground], not having people to pick, not filling orders, and then not having the confidence to plant for the current season.”

“I mean, we’re looking at a possible food, fresh produce shortage coming up. This is going to have a significant impact on consumers’ ability to buy fresh produce.”

rows of lettuce in the ground rows of lettuce in the ground
Shannon Moss’ cos lettuce crop was destroyed by water and mud and had to be ploughed back into the ground.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

A JobKeeper for ag?

Calls are coming from within Growcom for the state government’s disaster assistance to include support for growers to allow them to keep their staff on during these flood-recovery periods.

“In terms of keeping staff on farms, at the moment, it’s at the complete cost to the grower. There is no support from the government in this space whatsoever,” Ms Adams said.

“I think most certainly, in an instance of recognising a disaster, the JobKeeper program should come straight into play for growers to retain their staff.”

“And those staff can be used not only in their harvest capabilities but can be directly linked to the clean-up of the farm to get [the grower] back into operation.”

Belinda Adams stands in a paddock of babyleaf spinach. Belinda Adams stands in a paddock of babyleaf spinach.
Growcom chair Belinda Adams understands just how important it is for growers to have access to their workforce in the good times and the bad.(Supplied: Growcom)

Assistance takes too long

The office of the Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries and Minister for Rural Communities Mark Furner said that, under the Queensland Government’s Category B Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA) Category B assistance, primary producers could access $250,000 in concessional loans to cover wages.

Historically, however, it has taken around three weeks for primary producers to be assessed and granted this assistance, a wait time that Belinda Adams said is too long. 

“It needs to be immediate,” she said.

“We’ve got satellite imagery. We can actually indicate how significant the damage is by using technology, not relying on growers who are already in a panic state, who are already suffering, and who really don’t know how to log on and register their damages.”

Furner says survey on trial

The office of Minister Mark Furner also acknowledged this need for increased efficiency. 

“Recently, DAF has successfully been trialling a public-facing survey that allows primary producers and industry to input data directly into the DAF survey process.

“DAF has received significantly more impact reports using the public survey, which has reduced the activation request timeframe from two to three weeks down to one week,” Mr Furner’s office said in a statement.

Posted 8h ago8 hours agoWed 25 May 2022 at 3:03am, updated 8h ago8 hours agoWed 25 May 2022 at 3:15am