A NATIONWIDE operation aiming to bolster the supply of local workers to help deliver this year's bumper grain harvest and relieve pressure on farming communities was launched last week.
Retired and former Australian Defence Force (ADF) servicemen and women are being motivated and mobilised under Operation Grain Harvest Assist, to answer the call-up and work on grain farms throughout Australia.
The joint operation aims to recruit willing workers with the transferable skills needed to operate heavy machinery and perform other required jobs during grain harvest, in coming weeks.
Behind the scenes, ADF volunteers are driving the plan's operations, harvesting communication networks and empowering social media channels, to link their colleagues with farmers and harvest contractors who urgently need workers.
WAFarmers executive manager, policy, advocacy and engagement Jessica Wallace, said given increased workforce shortages limiting many parts of Australia's grains supply chain, the defence force initiative was greatly appreciated and timely.
"The second consecutive year of this global pandemic is presenting many complex challenges to manage for grain producers; especially securing enough workers to harvest and optimise the value of what's forecast to be a $15 billion grains crop," Ms Wallace said.
"But it helps ease the burden when major national groups of influence such as the ADF reach out and put their shoulders to the wheel, leading the charge to make a difference on the ground."
Retired Royal Australian Armoured Corps lieutenant colonel Garry Spencer said communications were a critical element of the operation's success, in order to give ADF servicemen and women enough time to consider their options and prepare for postings on-farms, in different regional communities.
"We know COVID-19 has greatly reduced the supply of grain harvest workers from overseas, with more than 100,000 fewer backpackers available this year, compared to 2020," Mr Spencer said.
"That's why we've put our heads together with grain industry leaders and devised a plan of attack that'll help not only farmers but also benefit our people with the option to get out and work onfarm to gain a sense of satisfaction, and valuable income, at this vital time.
"Driving a tank or piloting aircraft in a military manoeuvre is surely a great segue to working onfarm using heavy machinery such as harvesters with auto-steer, GPS guidance and air-conditioning."
Two Facebook pages will be managed by volunteer co-ordinators, with one of them linking workers to harvest jobs posted for farms in WA and SA, and the other for Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
Mr Spencer said the ADF's priority was to ensure retired and former ADF servicemen and women received proper support, guidance and advice, through volunteer co-ordinators that'll be available during the operation.
He said this would ensure proactive management of key issues such as labour agreements, employment conditions, training programs, accommodation arrangements and travel eligibility as essential workers, under COVID-19 rules, in different jurisdictions.
Grain Producers Australia chairman Andrew Weidemann said the ADF operation was welcomed and it complemented other strategic policy initiatives being pursued by GPA to help battle serious labour shortages to deliver short and long-term outcomes.
He said this package of proactive measures included urging the government to provide tax relief and concessions to incentivise and expand the national army of grey nomads to take up work on farms during peak periods such as harvest or seeding.
"GPA is also calling on rural businesses such as stock agents and agronomists to consider the option of allowing staff members to take leave without pay, to work onfarm this harvest," Mr Weidemann said.
"We're also working with QANTAS again this year, and the Regional Aviation Association of Australia, to link workers stood down due to COVID-19, with farm businesses, to provide them with temporary employment options and utilise their complementary skills."
GPA is also looking to work with the Federal government to ensure the newly announced Agricultural Visa is designed to provide medium-term and long-term outcomes for the grains industry, via access to skilled workers and multiple entry visa categories.