Multiple challenges ahead for agriculture

Shannon Beattie
By Shannon Beattie
December 6 2021 - 11:00pm
Marchagee grower Michael O'Callaghan believes machinery supply issues, fertiliser prices and staffing shortages are making times more difficult for farmers.

GROWERS in Western Australia are looking down the barrel of the most uncertain time in farming ever.

That's according to Marchagee grower Michael O'Callaghan, who believes machinery and parts supply issues, fertiliser prices and staffing shortages are making times more difficult for farmers.

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Supply chain problems around the world have made parts hard to come by for the past 12 to 18 months and with that not looking like easing anytime soon, having access to reliable and working machinery is set to be an ongoing issue.

Mr O'Callaghan said he tried to buy a dolly for a truck in late August or early September and could not find one anywhere in WA.

He rang up manufacturers in Perth and they almost laughed when he asked if they had a second-hand one and was told it would be April to June next year if he wanted one built.

Mr O'Callaghan then started looking around Australia and there were hardly any available, so when he eventually found one, he didn't haggle on the price and just sorted the purchase.

"We're hearing stories of gearboxes breaking down on harvesters and it taking months for suppliers to get parts to fix them as there are none available anywhere in the world," Mr O'Callaghan said.

"It's one thing having a spare belt or some bearings for your harvester, but do you have to just have a whole extra header laying around just in case, it's getting out of control."

Next on the list of concerns for Mr O'Callaghan was the price of fertiliser, with all products more than doubling in price in less than 12 months.

Compounding the price problem is availability, or lack thereof, with farmers worried they won't be able to get their hands on enough product for the 2022 growing season.

"I was lucky that I ordered 650 tonnes of fertiliser in June because the price of that has doubled in about four months," Mr O'Callaghan said.

"Potash went from $550 per tonne to $991/t, Flexi-N, which 12 months ago I could get for $420/t, is now $980/t.

"The big thing is that if I have a contract signed with a fertiliser supplier and they don't have it, then they just don't have to supply it to me, so even if you've got orders in there is still no guarantee."

With borders having been closed for the best part of two years, getting staff to operate machinery during seeding and harvest has been a challenge.

While borders are slowly starting to come down and WA should be open to the world again by seeding next year, Mr O'Callaghan is still worried about having enough experienced workers to run his operation because there is "too much bickering between State and Federal governments".

"We want people from the northern hemisphere who speak good English and have come from farms - I don't care if they've come from a 50 acre tomato farm, they still know the safe way to operate farm machinery," he said.

"We've been employing backpackers since 1999 and they've virtually all been from Europe, with safe and reliable staff coming to work for us from Germany, Scotland, Sweden, Italy, France and Estonia.

"We haven't had someone from Thailand or Indonesia, mainly because that background farming experience with machinery just isn't there, yet they're the countries the government is targeting for visas."

During the COVID period, workers holding temporary visas who were already in Australia found it easier than usual to get them extended or to have a new one issued, which showed the government can act and implement visas reasonably quickly and targeted.

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However with the world slowly returning to normal, the concern is that the visa situation will return to the old way, where someone can only receive a short-term visa, after which it is very difficult to get it extended or another one issued.

"We had three Estonians for seeding 2020 who went back home and they want to come back but they can't," Mr O'Callaghan said.

"People are still leaving, but others are still not allowed back in and we're not sure how open it will be next year, so I'm really worried about seeding.

"Ten years ago I would put an ad on Gumtree and get more than 200 backpackers from all around Australia applying, now we're down to just a few applications and they often have multiple offers, so it's hard to get them to commit."

Looking into the future, Australia will also be competing with the rest of the world coming out of COVID lockdowns for agricultural staff.

The solution to that problem, according to Mr O'Callaghan, is targeted visas that encourage qualified farming people to work and stay in rural WA.

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"It is seriously time for this McGowan government to work with the Federal government and assist WA farmers instead of making our tough situation more difficult," he said.

"There are a lot of extremely good people involved in agriculture in WA and I see a lot of unification in ag groups and farmers, so I see light at the end of the tunnel especially if we work together.

"Although we have discussed some negativity and uncertainty for the short-term future of farming it is a great industry to be in and personally I will embrace the challenges."

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