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Apple grower Sue Finger says its crunch time for Victoria's horticulture workforce.
As her Vernview Orchard at Launching Place welcomed some of the first overseas farm workers returning to the state, Finger has warned the industry needs to re-think how it sources labour during peak harvest periods.
Six workers from Vanuatu have arrived at Vernview in the Yarra Valley and they are among the first group of 200 from Pacific islands that has arrived in Victoria after quarantining in Tasmania.
Eventually, farms in the state will welcome 1500 Pacific workers under the deal struck between the Victorian and Tasmanian governments.
While the workers are welcome, Finger warns they are not enough and says the industry needs to look at its use of migrant labour.
“It won't be enough to service Victoria - (it's) one of the biggest horticulture states in Australia,” she said.
“We have to be a little more intuitive about how to attract workers and move forward.
“The solution may be that we have to re-think what we've been doing.
“It's a stressful time for us all - there are enough issues with weather and prices without having labour issues as well.”
Finger said it was becoming “pretty desperate” before Easter, with her farm's labourers struggling to harvest a bumper crop.
She added Vernview would be about $3000 (US$2,300) out of pocket per overseas worker, but said the cost is worth it.
“Sometimes you have to do what's required to keep your business going,” she said.
“We'll take a hit, but we're prepared to do that.
“With perennial tree crops, if you lose a year of income you've lost your business.
“You have to weigh up the challenges sometimes and accept them head-on.”
State Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said the Victorian government had provided $76 million (US$58.2 million) to help the industry find local and overseas workers.
It is proving a major problem for farmers in the wake of the pandemic.
“What the pandemic has exposed is that the horticulture industry is over-reliant on overseas workers,” she said.
“Backpackers are not coming back any time soon.
“Any industry that relies on overseas workers is going to find itself under the pump this year and has to think about different ways in which it can attract a local workforce.”
The state opposition says the arrival of the overseas workers is too little, too late, accusing the Victorian government of incompetence by not establishing a country quarantine facility for overseas farm workers six months ago.
“Labor's delays have dragged our farmers' livelihood through the dirt,” said Nationals MP Peter Walsh.
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