FARMERS' frustration with labour shortages came to the fore this week as debate over the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement heated up, but an innovative website has sprung up to ensure willing workers don't go to waste.
Bookham woman Ella Shannon took out the Westpac Innovation Challenge with her website AgTasker last week.
AgTasker is an online marketplace designed to match farmers to the short-term workforce.
"It's a wire connecting farmers to casual labour," Ms Shannon said.
Workers compete for jobs through the AgTasker website by placing bids on jobs that farmers post online.
Producers can select their employees based on their quoted rate, as well as ratings the workers received from previous employees.
The idea for Ms Shannon's business was sparked from her experience working across the ag sector, where she saw a chronic disconnect between the supply and demand for short-term labour.
"There are typically strong linkages between farmers and workers at a localised level, and that comes from word of mouth, but outside of that there aren't any networks to match short-term labour needs," she said.
"In many cases I saw jobs weren't being done because farmers just couldn't find trusted workers to do them."
The online marketplace could help farmers who were cautious of enlisting the service of labour hire companies, many of which were exposed for exploiting migrant workers earlier this year ("Rooting out bad apples", The Land, May 14, 2015, p3).
"That's where the recommendation function of AgTasker comes in handy - effectively all potential employees are reference-checked, so farmers feel assured they're getting the right person for the job."
Ms Shannon expected AgTasker, which will officially launch later this year, would initially match farmers with casual labour like university students, grey nomads and backpackers but in time its network would extend to professional services.
She received $40,000 from Westpac to support her idea and won a place in a program at BlueChilli, a company which helps entrepreneurial start-ups take their idea to market.
National Farmers Federation manager of workplace relations and legal affairs manager Sarah McKinnon said AgTasker was a "good idea".
She said labour shortages in regional areas remained an ongoing issue despite more than 400,000 backpackers working in Australian agriculture each year.
"Matching workers with employers is always difficult, especially when you throw into the mix multiple migration pathways," Ms McKinnon said.
"This type of information needs to be more co-ordinated across the sector and it's been something we've been thinking about ourselves."
An analysis of labour shortages by the NFF in 2008 showed 22,000 fruit-picking positions were going begging in horticulture - costing horticultural farms, on average, $100,000 a year each in unpicked rotting fruit - while another 80,000 jobs were needed in skilled areas; and in the most extreme cases, farmers were losing $250,000 per season in rotting produce due to the inability to find labour.
Cowra horticulturalist Ed Fagan, "Mulyan", relies heavily on seasonal labour.
He mostly hires backpackers - a practice which could be "hit and miss".
"Quite often backpackers haven't seen a farm before and they're very green," Mr Fagan said.
He said any tool that allowed producers to background their potential employees before they arrived on farm would be an improvement.
"Sometimes interviewing new workers can involve them turning up and us checking they're the right age, size and have good English, so it would be helpful to know beforehand if they had some work experience too."
A tool that could guarantee the validity of workers' migration documents would be ideal, he said.
"If there was some way to screen international workers so we knew with certainty their visas were fine, that'd be very welcome," Mr Fagan said.