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Farmers turn to travellers to fill gap
Busselton farmer Kieran Champman. Picture: Becky Felstead

South West farmers are relying on backpackers to plug a chronic staff shortage fuelled by an exodus of fly-in, fly-out workers out of Busselton.

Busselton farmer Kieran Chapman said FIFO was the biggest reason for a shortage of workers in the agricultural sector.

"It is almost impossible to find skilled local labour in the agricultural industry," he said.

Mr Chapman's father Greg said the struggle to find staff had worsened since Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group started flying workers out of the holiday town.

"If it wasn't for the backpackers, I think the country would starve," Greg Chapman, who is the Vasse president of WAFarmers, said.

The Chapmans said they would be lost without Irish backpacker Paurik Finnegan, who has proved to be a valuable farmhand since the family hired him four months ago.

The Shire of Busselton is trying to open the door to more FIFO with an $85 million plan to expand the airport to cater for interstate and overseas flights.

Busselton dairy farmer Elaine Haddon said she was also relying on overseas labour as the mining sector continued to vacuum up locals with the lure of big pay packets.

"We can't afford to pay our staff the amount of money they get on the mines," she said.

Mrs Haddon said dairy farmers were struggling to meet their costs after the supermarket giants pushed down the price of milk to $1 a litre.

"If we got a decent price for our milk, we could pay a decent wage to our workers," she said.

Seven of her 12 staff are backpackers from Europe. "They are fantastic but the problem with them is you only get them for three to six months if you are lucky."

A spokeswoman for Rio Tinto said the company had doubled its flights from Busselton to the Pilbara since last year.

She said FIFO workers ploughed more than $100 million into the Busselton economy and helped boost the local skill set through their apprenticeships.

More than 500 people fly out of Busselton to Rio Tinto mines on a FIFO roster but mining companies source thousands more from the South West who drive to Perth to catch flights.