Aust border ban leads to farm labour gaps

Sonia Kohlbacher and Michael Doyle
Farmers are worried about how to harvest crops, with travel bans now blocking foreign workers

Australian farmers are facing a labour shortage and are worried about who will harvest crops amid a ban on foreigners entering the country.

The agricultural sector is working to forecast how many people it will need to pick crops and take on other jobs once the foreign workers it relies on are blocked by a border closure from Friday night.

"We will get all of our crops harvested one way or another," Richard Shannon of horticultural body Growcom told AAP on Friday.

Agriculture, forestry and fisheries employees make up 2.5 per cent of the Australia's workforce.

But seasonal workers from Pacific nations are also needed for fruit and vegetable picking.

The countries they call home had already announced they'd be stopping their citizens from leaving amid the coronavirus pandemic, before Australia said it would be closing its borders to foreigners.

The federal government says it is close to announcing visa extensions for seasonal workers and backpackers already here, so they can keep working.

"We've got to understand there's over 140,000 backpackers in the country at the moment, and over 7000 Pacific Island workers with their visas," Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told the ABC.

"There is a workforce that is here and it's about making sure that we continue to provide continuity to our producers."

Some within the farming industry believe the visa system is too complicated and should be simplified.

"We would like to see a dedicated agriculture visa put in place," Bree Grima, managing director of Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers in Queensland said.

Bundaberg strawberry and passionfruit grower Tina McPherson is getting ready for the busiest time of the year.

The winter months are her peak season and there is no other way to harvest her fruit than by hand.

"We are a small farm but at the time we will probably need around 25 to 30 staff," she said.

"These are generally sourced from seasonal working-holiday labour."

The labour gap could also be an opportunity for Australian workers laid off or temporarily stood down from their jobs due to COVID-19 crisis.

"A majority of labour is unskilled so anyone can perform those roles," Mr Shannon said.

"Is a flight steward able to? Absolutely, as is a barista, as is a student.

"It's work outside and its rewarding."