Picking winners: $100k prize lures keen workers, to sweet relief of strawberry farmers

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The Queensland Strawberry Grower’s Association is crediting a competition for warding off what it feared would be its worst labour crisis on record.

Each season, Queensland produces about 42 per cent of Australia’s annual strawberry crop, with a farm gate value of $435 million last year.

But with international borders closed, the industry faced a huge challenge to get enough pickers and packers to stop ripe fruit rotting in the fields.

A woman wearing a hat smiles and poses with numbered strawberry plants around her.A woman wearing a hat smiles and poses with numbered strawberry plants around her.
Queensland Strawberry Growers Association marketing manager Jane Richter is thrilled her idea came to fruition.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

That was until QSGA marketing manager Jane Richter came up with the “pick and pack to win” idea to offer 10 workers each a one-in -a-hundred chance to win $100,000.

“When I proposed this initially to the executive team back in February, it was a room full of very stunned fish, initially,” Ms Richter laughed.

But with more than 5,000 people registering and 2,500 going on to work on strawberry farms, the concept was a winner.

Loyalty was rewarded, the longer participants worked for a farm the more points they earned to enter into the draw, with the 10 finalists chosen randomly by a computer.

Queensland Strawberry Growers Association president Adrian SchultzQueensland Strawberry Growers Association president Adrian Schultz
QSGA president Adrian Schultz says the competition has gained national attention.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“It’s been heard all around Australia, we’re now looked at as an industry leader in trying to attract people,” QSGA president, Adrian Schultz said.

It’s welcome good news as Queensland’s picking season comes to a close.

COVID-19 lockdowns decimated demand and punnet prices plummeted as low as three for $2.

Discounted strawberries in Canberra in AugustDiscounted strawberries in Canberra in August
Discounted strawberry punnets at a Canberra supermarket in August, 2021.(ABC Rural: Kath Sullivan)

An excited crowd gathered at the Sandstone Point hotel for the competition finalists draw.

For each of the 10 games, finalists had to guess which number contained the top prize from 100 sealed envelopes.

And while no-one scored the $100,000 top prize, each finalist left $1,000 richer.

Two ladies hug and smile at the camera.Two ladies hug and smile at the camera.
Working holidaymaker Cherish Ling was a competition finalist and her employer Laura Wells from TSL Family Farms was thrilled.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Cherish Ling, a working-visa holder from southern China who has worked for TSL Family Farms at Wamuran for three seasons, said she felt  “so lucky and so excited” to be part of the draw.

When the strawberry packer’s name was drawn her employer, Laura Wells, was just as thrilled.

“We were all excited, jumping around, my sister was crying,” she said.

“Cherish has been with us for a really long time and she’s part of our family. We love her. 

For first-time fruit picker, Chris Wright, from Wollongong, the competition sealed his decision to work for Luvaberry for 17 weeks.

“I was doing a PhD in environmental science but because of COVID-19 it wasn’t really working out so I left the PhD and just decided I’ll try something new for a little while and have an adventure,” he said.

A lady smiles at the camera with numbered flags near her wearing a strawesome t-shirt.A lady smiles at the camera with numbered flags near her wearing a strawesome t-shirt.
Finalist Pam Diessler had travel plans on her mind.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

With her car broken down at the mechanics, Ashbern Farm’s administration manager Pam Diessler contemplated what she could do if she won the major prize.

“My husband and I’ve been looking at buying a caravan for a while, do a little bit of travelling so it’s probably already spent,” she laughed.

Zairo Baretto from East Timor and Ryo Niwa altruistically pledged to share their winnings with family and friends.

Competition finalists Zairo Baretto and Ryo NiwaCompetition finalists Zairo Baretto and Ryo Niwa
Competition finalists Zairo Baretto and Ryo Niwa won $1,000 each.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

The berry industry has been challenged over underpayment of foreign workers, with the Australian Workers Union applying to the Fair Work Commission to drop piece rates and amend the horticulture award to ensure farm workers receive the minimum casual wage.

“Ultimately those farms that chose to take part in the promotion and saw it all the way through are really the good guys essentially,” Ms Richter said.

“All of the finalists who were selected we forensically went through their records to make sure that they were paid, what they should have been paid.

“Every participating farm had to agree to abide by the terms and conditions and in fact there were two farms that we ended up removing from the competition because they failed to comply,” Ms Richter said.