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Business

23 April, 2021

2000 farm jobs on offer

FARMS on the Atherton Tablelands are looking for up to 2000 workers for the upcoming six-month winter season according to one of the region’s most experienced farmers.

By Tanya Murphy

Atherton avocado farmer Jim Kochi. PHOTO: Mareeba Express

Avocadoes Australia Chairman Jim Kochi, who has been farming avocadoes at Atherton since 1978, estimated the local avocado industry alone would need up to 500 staff.

Working Holiday Makers normally pick up to 80 per cent of the fruit and vegetables in Queensland, but there are 79,000 fewer of them left in Australia compared with this time last year, with more leaving every week.

Mr Kochi said backpacker hostels in Atherton were at less than 20 per cent of their usual occupancy, and despite the Cairns unemployment rate rising to 6.5 per cent after the end of JobKeeper last month, Mr Kochi said farms were desperately short of staff for the upcoming season.

He said smashed avo would soon be a luxury out of reach, and prices for other salad items would also soar.

“Farmers are not planting as much because they’re not confident that they’re going to be able to get workers, so there will only be about half available on the market,” he said.

“If you can get fruit and vegetables – it’ll be expensive. There’s going to be a shortage of tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums, eggplant, broccoli, all the salad vegetables. That’s when people will start to realise how serious this is getting.

“I’m talking about Australia-wide. Queensland supplies all of Australia in winter because it’s too cold to grow elsewhere.”

He said he was looking for another 15 workers to work six days a week on his own farm, but found himself competing against the hospitality industry which was also crying out for workers.

“Everyone in hospitality are screaming out for backpackers as well, because locals aren’t coming in looking for work,” he said.

“The thing that worries me the most is that we are getting no engagement from young people. The people coming looking for jobs are older people, over forty.

“I’ve got two older tradies out of Edmonton who drive up the Gillies Range every day to pick avocadoes.

“I think Australian young people need to get more motivated.”

He said workers at farms like his would get up to 50 hours a week at $24.80 an hour for the next 20 weeks as the crop moves into its peak season.

“Australians actually make more than backpackers in this job because they get their tax back,” he said.

“Avocadoes is an easy crop. There are no thorns, sap, or prickles and they aren’t heavy to pick.

“The picking is in the cool months of the year and they grow on trees so you don’t have to bend over to pick them.

“You don’t need any skills, and any age can do it, both men and women.”

Meanwhile the Queensland Government has launched the #PickQLD Winter Harvest 2021 campaign to entice workers from across Australia to escape southern winter by embracing a rural Queensland job.

Queensland residents travelling to take up harvest work are also eligible for up to $1500 under the Back to Work in Agriculture Incentive Scheme.

'Give avos a go,' say workers

Cairns local Simon Uren working as an avocado picker

Cairns local Simon Uren said he would recommend an avocado picking job to anyone, after starting his second season working at a farm in the Tablelands.

He started on the farm in March last year after his hours as a deckhand and coxswain for a major reef tourism company were slashed during the pandemic.

He and five other Aussies make a daily commute from Cairns to work on the farm, and occasionally camp overnight.

“I’m originally from inner city Sydney so I had no idea about farm work previously but now I enjoy it. It’s working outdoors in nature,” he said.

“I think there’s a stigma around farm work but I enjoy it. We do eight or nine-hour days and we get paid about $200 per day which is minimum wage but it’s fair. Just make sure you know what your rights are.

“All fruits are different, but avocadoes are probably the best ones because you can drive a cherry picker right up to the top of the tree and pick into your basket. It’s actually pretty fun.

“I think if people go there with an open mind, you can learn interesting stuff. This farm has passionfruit as well so you do something different every day, whether it’s fertilising the plants or training the vines.

“And it’s definitely less stressful, because you’re out in nature and you don’t have people in your face.

“The farmer shows you once what you’ve got to do, and then you just do your thing the whole day. Meditative is a good way of describing it.

“One of the workers even brought his teenaged kids up during the school holidays and they helped out as well for a bit of pocket money.”

Cairns local Matt Gerdes was a professional musician and music teacher before the pandemic struck, but he’s also now commencing his second season working as a packer on a friend’s small avocado farm in the Tablelands.

“For me, the avocado season is a short-term change, and I’m working with good people so that makes it fun,” said the ‘Whodafunkit’ saxophonist, guitarist and singer.

“Now that JobKeeper has finished, it has left a lot of people in the arts industry struggling.

“Things are winding back up again, but with lockdowns still coming and going, a lot of music venues don’t have their budgets back to full capacity.”

Mr Gerdes said that some employers may have earned the agriculture industry a bad reputation.

“I understand that farmers are struggling to find workers, but for all the reports of people having great times on farms with great conditions, there are also some reports contrary to that, where some farms may be spoiling the reputation for the industry as a whole,” he said.

A report by Unions New South Wales released in March audited more than 1000 job ads for entry level farm work, and interviewed Australian and temporary-migrant workers employed across Australia in the horticulture industry.

The report, part of Unions NSW’s “Wage Theft: The Shadow Market” survey, found that under ‘piece rates,’ some workers were paid for the volume picked rather than per hour, resulting in pay as low as $1.25 an hour.

 

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