Labor Shortages, Recent Floods Create 'Insane Situation' as Australian Harvest Begins

Growers and producers hopeful of a bumper harvest after last year’s “oil drought” are scrambling to find solutions for dire labor shortages due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Cape Schanck Olive Estate
Apr. 29, 2021
Lisa Anderson

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Labor short­ages in Australia, which have caused tons of agri­cul­tural pro­duce to rot, are spilling over to the olive sec­tor as the country’s grow­ers started har­vest­ing last month.

Even though Australian olive grow­ers — unlike many oth­ers in the pro­duce indus­try — are pri­mar­ily reliant on mechan­i­cal har­vesters, they have not escaped the acute labor short­ages brought about by Covid-19 travel restric­tions.

Labor is stretched, and find­ing the right con­nec­tions with the skills and avail­abil­ity is a chal­lenge. Some fruit may not be able to be har­vested or maybe not at the opti­mal time.- Amanda Bailey, com­mit­tee mem­ber, Australian Olive Oil Association

Being heav­ily reliant on young for­eign labor­ers in the pro­duce indus­try pre-Covid – typ­i­cally more than 200,000 back­pack­ers would account for 80 per­cent of Australia’s work­force dur­ing har­vest time – the coun­try is now faced with a short­fall of 26,000 farm work­ers.

Local olive grow­ers are con­cerned that these short­ages could bring their mechan­i­cal har­vest­ing equip­ment to a grind­ing halt.

See Also: Olive Oil Consumption Hits Record High in Australia

There are many pro­duc­ers in Australia who have advised our office of labor short­ages for the oper­a­tion of mechan­i­cal har­vest­ing machines and olive oil pro­cess­ing machines, and labor for fruit pick­ing,” Amanda Bailey, an Australian Olive Oil Association (AOOA) com­mit­tee mem­ber, told Olive Oil Times.

Labor is stretched, and find­ing the right con­nec­tions with the skills and avail­abil­ity is a chal­lenge,” she added. Some fruit may not be able to be har­vested or maybe not at the opti­mal time.”

Bailey, who focuses on Australia’s grass­roots olive oil indus­try, said the AOOA is try­ing to con­nect pro­duc­ers and have some of our answers com­ing from our back­yard.”

I believe this is a time for find­ing indus­try con­nec­tion,” she added. When har­vest­ing con­trac­tors are work­ing in a par­tic­u­lar area, they should har­vest for every pro­ducer in that area.”

Bailey said that is exactly the trend they are see­ing presently, with indi­vid­u­als work­ing in sev­eral pro­cess­ing plants in addi­tion to har­vest­ing for mul­ti­ple grow­ers.

Pre-Covid, pro­duc­ers were in com­pe­ti­tion, but now they are work­ing together,” she said.

Another chal­lenge farm­ers and pro­duc­ers are deal­ing with is the min­ing indus­try, which pays higher wages and is exac­er­bat­ing the prob­lem for olive grow­ers. The com­pe­ti­tion is insane,” Bailey said.

Along with the worker short­age, the Australian olive indus­try is also being impacted by a short­age of agro­nomic experts, many of whom are trapped abroad due to pan­demic-related travel restric­tions.

This adds to a mul­ti­tude of fac­tors that are cre­at­ing an insane sit­u­a­tion,” Bailey said. “[This is] a unique sit­u­a­tion across the board and a race against the clock.”

Australia’s labor predica­ment has been exac­er­bated by the recent floods in New South Wales, the country’s worst nat­ural dis­as­ter of this nature in decades.

Some farm­ers have reported back a 40 per­cent fruit drop, which has been a let-down this year with us look­ing for­ward to a bumper har­vest after last year’s oil drought,” Bailey said.

See Also: 2021 Harvest Updates

However, Bailey is still hope­ful for a bumper har­vest this year. They [grow­ers] are left with a lot of prod­uct they can use,” she added.

Sui Tham, co-owner of Cape Schanck Olive Estate south of Melbourne, told Olive Oil Times that they have side­stepped the recent labor short­ages thanks to rely­ing on local labor for the past three years, but added other groves may not be as for­tu­nate as we are.”

Tham echoed Bailey’s con­cerns and said there remains a crit­i­cal short­age of sea­sonal work­ers” across the coun­try.

The dearth of these sea­sonal work­ers will cer­tainly affect their [olive grow­ers’] effi­cien­cies in grove main­te­nance, har­vest­ing, pro­cess­ing and the cost of their oil,” Tham said.

David Valmorbida, the pres­i­dent of the AOOA, also echoed Bailey’s con­cerns about the recent floods.

Generally speak­ing, olive trees, after their juve­nile growth period, are a very sturdy plant, and they love a good water­ing,” he said. However, given we are at the cusp of start­ing the new har­vest, excess rain may cause a num­ber of issues, rang­ing from strip­ping the trees of the fruit and foliage and dam­ag­ing the fruit through the heavy rain.”

An excess of water in the weeks prior to har­vest can mean there will be unusu­ally high water con­tent in the fruit, which can reduce oil qual­ity as well,” Valmorbida added.

It will depend on a farm-by-farm basis as to whether the trees and fruit have been dam­aged,” he con­cluded. Of course, more gen­er­ally, a flood can dam­age the farm and poten­tially cause ero­sion of the top­soil among other issues.”





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