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Global Food Forum 2022: Our booming horticultural sector, record demand but hard labour

14/06/2022

On Wednesday the 1st June, Melbourne hosted the Australian Global Food Forum, which gathered experts and industry operators for a series of talks, panel discussions and debates on the most pressing issues facing the industry today. The theme of this year’s Forum was “Facing the future: The next 10 years of Australian agribusiness”, with a focus on the brick walls Australia’s $150 billion agribusiness sector is butting its head against at present and potential solutions for surmounting them as we head into the future.

LaManna Premier Group’s CEO, Anthony Di Pietro took part in a panel discussion on Australia’s horticultural sector, joined by Michael Simonetta, CEO of Perfection Fresh Group, and Paul Thompson, Managing Director of Selects Harvests, with The Australian’s Business Reporter Jared Lynch moderating the panel.

The discussion by each panellist started off with stressing the massive challenge posed by farm labour – specifically, the severe lack of it – and how this is impacting their growing operations and Australian farming in general. Though termed “unskilled”, this type of labour in fact requires a high degree of skill, and having reliable workers who return each season enables smoother harvesting and better results.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of Working Holiday visa holders in the country dropped from about 140,000 in March 2020 to 30,000 in June 2021, taking out a huge chunk of labour that farms rely on during harvests to get their produce from the field or farm to shelves and consumers. The expanded Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme (formerly known as the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme) has stepped in as a saviour by partially covering some of this labour deficit by enabling workers from nine Pacific Island countries to come to Australia to harvest and pack fruit and vegetables otherwise at risk of rotting where they hang, however the shortfall is still massive and farmers are still struggling to ensure that good produce doesn’t go to waste simply because there’s no one to pick it.

Mr. Di Pietro emphasised the importance of creating a community for the seasonal workers who come to Australia, some of whom have been in the country for two or even three years now as a result of the pandemic. This includes ensuring the workers have places to gather and relax, access to places of worship, and are involved in community activities such as sport.

Coming at the problem from another angle, Mr. Thompson raised the issue of encouraging members of the Australian workforce to move to rural areas and take up farm work. He pointed out that to make this an appealing option for people, there is a dire need for investment in local infrastructure, including essential services such as doctors and hospitals, as well as lifestyle elements like cinemas. What’s more, the horticultural sector perennially undersells itself and the wide range of career paths it offers in a diverse array of fields – from management to marketing to logistics and distribution.

In the aftermath of the lockdowns, a major issue facing agribusiness is the competition for skilled talent: many companies have been able to accommodate their employees working remotely, and certain industries can easily adapt to this new standard in working conditions. With horticulture this is not so easy, as the industry is quite literally tied to the ground. It’s not just farm workers who need to be on site, doing work like pruning and picking that only human hands can do, the managers and supervisors also need to be where the produce is being grown as a basic facet of carrying out their job. This means that horticultural businesses are competing for skilled labour with big-city firms who are now wooing potential employees with more flexible packages.

All these factors have been contributing to fresh produce price inflation – evinced by the humble iceberg lettuce’s Gucci-worthy $12 price tag. But of course, there’s another factor at play – one that is older than time itself: inclement weather. Produce grown outdoors is always at the mercy of the heavens, and whether it’s floods, frost or searing temperatures, weather is combining with labour shortages and the rising cost of farm inputs to create a perfect storm of price increase for fresh produce.

So how are farms and businesses in the horticultural sector going to cope with the multitude of challenges set before them in the modern era? As Mr. Di Pietro states, the amount that bigger businesses are now required to invest in farming infrastructure like greenhouses is far beyond what previous generations had to face. He stresses the need to think about the long term, especially since the market will take time to settle down and readjust, even if all pressures were lifted today. This means we need to focus on longer-term plans for dealing with the labour shortage, including new ways of bringing workers from more locations overseas, and selling our industry to young Australians entering the workforce so that they choose to grow their career in the nourishing greenhouse of the horticultural sector.

Image source ~ https://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/global-food-forum 

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