Demand for new staff as cherry harvest approaches

Young cherry harvest approaches as industry works to lure new employees

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BIG HARVEST AHEAD: Cherry Growers Association president and Young grower Tom Eastlake has been working on facilitating new pickers this harvest. Picture: The Young Witness

BIG HARVEST AHEAD: Cherry Growers Association president and Young grower Tom Eastlake has been working on facilitating new pickers this harvest. Picture: The Young Witness

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The Young cherry season is finally seeing a strong crop, but the coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the seasonal workforce.

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As cherry farmers around Young prepare to harvest their first strong crop for a few years, the industry is working hard to get enough employees on the ground to make sure millions of dollars worth of fruit is picked.

It is one of many agricultural industries relying on a seasonal workforce decimated by international and domestic border closures.

Cherry Growers Australia president and Young cherry farmer Tom Eastlake said after a "brutal" few years of drought, farms were already "all hands on deck" to prepare for a strong harvest after the return of winter rainfall.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to lock out backpackers and deter Australian workers from crossing state borders, Mr Eastlake said the industry was facing challenges it was not used to in recruiting staff.

"We generally don't have any trouble maintaining and procuring staff because of our reputation ... this year we've been blessed in getting good levels of applications comparable to horticulture, but in terms of our total need it's been way down," he said.

Mr Eastlake said the Young region was a major focus of recruiting efforts because of its distance from the capital cities.

He said the industry had been working on setting up temporary accommodation measures for non-traditional workers who were not as well set-up for the lifestyle.

"There's no silver bullet to find staffing so we've got to look at all available options," he said.

While larger cherry farms continue the search for staff, small to medium farms across the Riverina have been less affected.

Kristy Barton of Grovelands cherries at Oura said their harvest was usually later than Young, and with 1000 trees she was usually able to find staff locally rather than rely on backpackers who prefer the bigger work commitment of larger orchards.

HIRING LOCAL: Chris Hall of Hall Family Orchards has been targeting Australian workers in recent years. Picture: The Young Witness

HIRING LOCAL: Chris Hall of Hall Family Orchards has been targeting Australian workers in recent years. Picture: The Young Witness

Chris Hall of Hall Family Orchards at Wombat said as a medium-sized orchard, he usually focused on hiring Australian workers.

He said there were still challenges with state borders, with some of his regular workers telling him they would not come if they were required to quarantine for 14 days when entering NSW.

"Probably half of mine are retired grey nomads, so they don't really have to go out and work if they don't want to," Mr Hall said.

Mr Eastlake said the work they had been doing to facilitate easier access to the industry would hold them in good stead should reduced backpacker numbers continue for years to come due to COVID-19.

"This is a 2020 problem, it's going to be a 2021 problem so the opportunity we have is to try and survive this year and get things in place that we can use again next year to get through next year as well," he said.

The story Demand for new staff as cherry harvest approaches first appeared on The Rural.

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