SYDNEY - Australian farmers are expecting a bumper harvest after a period of drought-busting rain but they face a new crisis as border closures have caused a serious shortage of pickers and farm workers.
New official data showed that farmers are set to produce a record A$73 billion (S$71.7 billion) worth of goods in the coming year, up more than 10 per cent from last year.
The increase has been due to favourable weather that has ended a devastating drought, as well as an easing of a recent mouse plague. Booming prices of grain and other agricultural items, due to droughts in Europe and North America, have also helped.
But the potential boom has been accompanied by a severe shortage of workers as a result of Australia's strict international and state border closures due to Covid-19.
Typically, Australia relies on an influx of short-term workers and backpackers from around the world to help to pick the nation's fruit and other produce during the harvest season. But most of these potential workers are currently barred from entering the country.
Some Australian states have also imposed interstate border closures due to Covid-19 outbreaks, which has further restricted the flow of workers and machinery.
Mr Tony Mahar, the chief executive of the National Farmers' Federation, told The Straits Times that tens of thousands of additional workers are likely to be needed over the coming months to ensure all crops and livestock can be harvested and tended to.
He said the labour shortage threatens to disrupt Australia's massive agriculture exports.
"There is a record grain harvest coming, but the semi-skilled and low-skilled people that normally come over and help with the harvest won't be coming," he said. "It is pretty alarming. If you can't get people to pick the crop or make it come out of the ground, it stays there."
Mr Mahar said the worst-affected crops include fruit and vegetables, though there are growing concerns about the ability to harvest wheat, canola and chickpeas. Australia is expected to export about A$8.5 billion worth of wheat in the coming year. Large buyers include China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
"If we can't get the crop out of the paddock and onto ships and planes, it could have ramifications for Australia as a long-term supplier," Mr Mahar said.
Some farmers have planted fewer crops or started recruiting former soldiers, retirees and unemployed airline staff.
A farmer who grows wheat, barley and chickpeas in New South Wales, Mr Matthew Madden, said army personnel and airline pilots often have skills that are suited to operating farming machinery.
"The world is crying out for our grain at the moment," he told The Sydney Morning Herald.
The farming sector has been urging the states and the federal government to ease border rules for workers from abroad, including allowing people to quarantine in homes or on farms.
Some workers from Pacific islands have been allowed to enter as part of a special scheme that allows citizens from those countries to work in rural areas. The state of Queensland has allowed about 3,100 Pacific workers to enter, including some who have undergone quarantine on farms.
The federal government last month announced plans for a new agriculture visa that will allow workers from other countries - potentially from Asia - to enter to work on farms. The countries have not yet been named and will be based on discussions between Australia and foreign governments.
According to a report in The Australian newspaper, the Department of Foreign Affairs Trade has been working on agreements with four South-east Asian nations. Details are due to be released in the coming days.
The federal government last week urged the states, which run most quarantine facilities, to allow more Pacific workers to enter, particularly from countries with few Covid-19 cases.
The International Development Minister, Mr Zed Seselja, said 27,000 Pacific workers, including 7,000 who are fully vaccinated, are willing to work in regional Australia but are unable to enter due to a lack of quarantine places and caps on international arrivals.
"We need to look afresh at places like Tonga and Samoa, which have zero community transmission," he told SBS News. "We should be welcoming them with open arms."
In Western Australia, strawberry farmers have responded to the workforce shortage by inviting the public to pick their own fruit, for which they typically pay as they leave.
"There's no point growing something if you can't pick it," a member of the state's Strawberry Growers Association, Mr Jamie Michael, told 9News.
Facts and Figures: Australia's farm sector
Expected Australian farm output in 2021-22: A$73 billion (S$71.7 billion)
Expected exports in 2021-22: A$55 billion
Major exports: Meat, wheat, wine, wool, fruit
Major buyers: China, Japan, US, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Singapore