ATTRACTING talent to the agricultural sector and promoting the liveability of the regions were a few of the hot topics discussed at the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) agricultural industry update.
Held at the Aloft Hotel in Rivervale last Wednesday, industry and government stakeholders were given the opportunity to ask questions to Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan, as well as guest speaker CBH Group acting chief executive Ben MacNamara and fellow panelists, Regional Development Council (RDC) chairwoman Rebecca Tomkinson and Ocean Grown Abalone managing director Brad Adams about the opportunities and challenges facing the sector.
Ms Tomkinson said despite the distraction and challenges posed by COVID-19, WA's nine RDCs and DPIRD were still focussed on improving the liveability of the regions to help overcome labour shortfalls facing the industry.
"We need to think about it differently with new models of employment and new ways of working together to promote those aspects of liveability," Ms Tomkinson said.
With the pandemic highlighting the ability of people to be able to work anywhere and still be connected, Ms Tomkinson said it meant more employment opportunities could be delivered in the regions.
However she said the provision of housing and workers accomodation for those living and moving to regional WA continued to be a complex issue.
"We know that Western Australians are wandering out yonder in numbers too big to ignore and indeed moving to regional areas again, more so than they ever have, so we are working hard to ensure that we can maintain the infrastructure that supports that," Ms Tomkinson said.
Ms MacTiernan said part of the issue was that there simply weren't the people nor the materials available to address the housing shortage in the regions.
"We are going through a massive boom - in Kalbarri we are working on getting a workers' village up there, but we all have the same problem - every time we get an intervention in the market that's actually making it harder for other people that are also competing in the market," Ms MacTiernan said.
While the department has been trying to help fill worker shortages in the sector the past 12 months through initiatives such as its farm worker incentive program and Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme, Ms MacTiernan said the sector's broader focus needed to be on finding long-term solutions.
"We are certainly looking at increasing collaborations with universities - what the precise model is, is a work in progress, but I would hope by the middle of the (next) year we would have some clarity on exactly where we are going on that," Ms MacTiernan said.
She said outcomes from the DPIRD's research with WA university students had shown that technology, a capacity to innovate, helped create a more sustainable world and enhance its survivability had been highlighted as attractive features of the industry.
"It's important that agriculture is not presented in a way that is oppositionist to those (sustainability) values and that there is a place for those within the business model," Ms MacTiernan said.
"And let's not forget to tell a positive story of living in the regions, like the massive sense of community that people have."
The panellists agreed that the agricultural industry was uniquely placed to attract a younger generation that was very connected to purpose as well as the sustainability piece.
Speaking from a CBH perspective, Mr Macnamara had a positive story to tell about the co-operative's recent campaign for seasonal workers, which attracted 4000 applicants.
"We have just under 2000 of them working for us, so there is a massive appetite for people to work in regional WA, but I agree that we need to make sure we have the appropriate resources to attract and retain talent in regional WA," Mr Macnamara said.
"Over the past 6-12 months we have attracted a lot of really good talent to the business and if we open the borders I think that will really be enhanced."
Following a survey of CBH Group's key customers this year, Mr Macnamara said the sustainability theme also extended to WA's grain markets, with more than one million tonnes of sustainable grain sold.
"There is a strong appetite for sustainability, as they all have targets of their own," Mr Macnamara said.
"The two key things that they are seeking is chemical residue management - so making sure that we focus on that area - and the other one was around traceability."
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