VICTORIAN fruit and vegetable growers are urging the state and federal governments to move more quickly, in opening state and international borders.
They say they're approaching a critical point, prior to harvest, where they need certainty over what workers will be available.
A recent report by Ernst & Young predicted horticultural producers would require an additional 26,000 workers to harvest crops this summer.
The EY report, commissioned by peak body Hort Innovation, was the first to put a figure on the potential seasonal worker shortage.
Ausveg chair and Lindenow vegetable grower, Bill Bulmer, said seasonal workers and backpackers were the backbone of the horticultural industry.
"As much as the government has been trying with all the incentives, to attract out of work Australians to do seasonal work, that doesn't appeal to Australians."
He said it was now imperative that all governments increased the number of labourers, under the seasonal worker program, coming into Australia.
"We do have detention centres, we do have regional areas, which have got school camps, that coud be available, that could house people for their quarantine period," Mr Bulmer said.
"A lot of people are going to come through Darwin, particularly the East Timorese, there is the ability, up there, to house people to do their 14 days quarantine, and then send them to the regional destination where they are required."
Mr Bulmer said in March, he had to let 80 to 100 workers go.
'Now we are in the situation, where we need 40 more people and we would have those coming through on the seasonal workers program.
"It's a mystery, around the communication going between the federal and state governments around the seasonal worker program - and we get caught up in the politics."
THE EY report It found Shepparton, north-west Victoria and the NSW Murray region would be hardest hit.
Shepparton orchardist, Peter Hall, said the region would require staff in December.
"It's good, at least the federal budget is recognising it as an issue, the EY report came out, also came out and said there is going to be a shortfall, unless action is taken," Mr Hall said.
"The big issue is logistics, there are very few flights coming in to Australians, and most of those, I think they are bringing in Australians.
"Victoria is basically a state in lockdown.
"We have hard borders with SA and NSW, and - to a large extent - we are depending on whether or not the state government can manage their disaster, as to whether or not there can be confidence in opening the borders."
Mr Hall said if an itinerant worker came to Victoria, at the moment, they knew they could not get out.
"They are holiday makers, so who would come to Victoria, at the moment, if they know they have the restrictions of not being able to get out of the state and also have to wear a mask?
"People on holidays don't want to wear a mask - there is an image, or brand, problem, with Victoria that will affect the amount of people who want to come here."
Quarantine costs would be prohibitive and there was still a lot of red tape, to get overseas workers to the Shepparton or Goulburn Valley area.
"You can't put an unnecessary burden on fruit growers."
People were talking about schemes to encourage the unemployed to work on farms, but fruit picking was not an easy job.
"It's unfair on the unemployed and it's unfair on the fruit growers, to employ people who were unfit to work," Mr Hall said.
"You don't want your fruit damaged, by people who have low motivation.
"Fruit picking sometimes only lasts for three or four weeks, by the time training is finished, your variety might have finished - it's a bit of a mismatch."
Itinerant workers, backpackers and Pacific Islanders wanted to make money, working hard for two or three weeks, then moving on.
"That sort of suits them," he said.
TABLE grape grower Rocky Mammone, Irymple, said he had 20 local residents, working on his farm, at the moment.
"They are locals, some of them have been here for 10 years, they are from Vietnam and Asia, but they own houses in Mildura, they have kids at school, they are local residents," Mr Mammone said.
"Our industry is stop-start.
"This is where it's hard to get a steady workforce - I will need 20-30 people in the next three weeks and then I need five people for the next three weeks.
"If they want to work, there is heaps of work out there."
But he said he would need a labour "surge" from January onwards.
"I need 60 people, and I am a medium sized grower, I need them for four or five months."
"Between Mildura and Robinvale we might need 10,000 fruit pickers, there are just not the numbers of people willing to do that work."
The workforce would have to be made up a mix of backpackers, Pacific Island workers and itinerant workers.
"With these border closures, how easy is it for people to move around the country?"
He said he would rather go direct, to employ workers, rather than through labor hire companies.
"It would be cheaper, as I am paying a service fee to my contractors, I would rather do it myself, it would save me heaps of money."
His current contractor was supplying workers to three farms.
"I am paying super, they charge me Workcover and insurance, but my own workcover and insurance is cheaper than what I pay the contractor.
"When you have 40-50 people on the farm, it adds up."
Technology the key
MERBEIN South grape grower, Enrique Rossi, said he was "mentally trying to prepare" for the worst, of not having any workers this season.
"We export 100 per cent of what we produce - losing our market after all that hard work would be very hard to see," Mr Rossi said.
Governments were reacting very slowly and reacting, rather than being proactive.
"The federal government should look at bigger changes, such as tax incentives for those who work on the land - after all why pay the same tax as people living in the regional cities with limited, and in some cases,no services?
"They should also allow pensioners to work without losing their benefits, after all they will spend money and that will improve the economy."
Mr Rossi said he was trying to automate parts of his harvest, starting by separating out tasks, with specialist workers doing only the one job.
"Our experience says that people only want to do one task for no more than six hours/ day and work five days a week but no more than six.
"For our crop, this is not possible or viable, so separating tasks, removing 'wasted time' such as collecting or pushing trollies, carrying objects or packaging and placing boxes on the ground, can be motorised or automated.
"Identifying tasks and finding how to minimise them with equipment, or with a new system, is the key to have a more attractive jobs on offer and people to stay for longer."
He said it was time to reinvent or reinvigorate current systems, as labour would always be a problem.
"Governments should invest with easy to access grants, to try and create new technologies - after all Australia does have very good inventions for mechanisation that came from growers and now are available globally."