Staff shortages due to illness and isolation rules impacting vegetable growers

Melody Labinsky
By Melody Labinsky
January 19 2022 - 12:00am
Velisha Farms managing director Catherine Velisha says it is a very stressful time for business owners.

Australian vegetable growers want consumers to know there isn't a shortage of fresh produce, there is a shortage of workers throughout the supply chain.

Velisha Farms managing director Catherine Velisha said 50 per cent of the workforce in its packing facility was in isolation from either testing positive to COVID-19 or being a close contact.

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She said this had put a lot of strain on the remaining workers and was also taking its toll on the people in isolation.

Based at Werribee South, Victoria, Velisha Farms grows and sources cauliflower, broccoli, celery, iceberg lettuce, zucchini, kale, spring onions and cucumbers.

The business services supermarkets and also has a stand in Melbourne's Epping market.

Ms Velisha said in some cases, growers had entire crews in isolation.

"We have growers that just haven't been able to harvest at all, so there's a shortage of supply on some lines like spring onions," she said.

"We buy in stock as well so we understand all the different issues in the supply chain at the moment, because we are dealing with them all."

Velisha Farms has also come up against complications with trucks not arriving and stock coming in days later.

Ausveg chief executive officer Michael Coote said the industry needs every available healthy worker to ensure a steady supply of fresh vegetables to consumers around Australia.

"Perishable products have a limited shelf life and are at most risk of supply chain disruptions given the increased time that it can take for product to get to consumers," Mr Coote said.

"If these supply chain disruptions continue, we may see more businesses weighing up whether they can get their crops from the farm through the supply chain in time to reach consumers."

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In Far North Queensland, Bowen Gumlu Growers Association president Carl Walker said the mango and vegetable harvest has finished.

Northern growers did not have to contend with the challenges of staff in isolation but had struggled to find enough workers as a result of interstate and international border restrictions.

Mr Walker said another challenge the industry was facing was rising on-farm costs for the 2022 season.

He said prices were 'going through the roof' and expected they would increase by a minimum of 30pc.

"When we are working on a profit margin of less than 10pc and sometimes less than 5pc, we are looking at ways to minimise output," Mr Walker said.

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"We can't absorb a 30pc increase; I think consumers and the supermarkets have to realise the price of fresh fruit and veggies have to stay at a level where we can actually maintain our production costs."

Like other businesses, and the general public, ideally Ms Velisha would like to have a supply of rapid antigen tests on hand but this has not been possible.

She said it was a very stressful time for business owners, who were also considering repercussions like safe working hours and worker fatigue.

"How long do you say it's okay to be working with 50pc of your workforce and how long is it okay to put the individuals under stress like that?," Ms Velisha said.

"It's okay if it's a short time but if it's not a short time, what do you do?

"Farmers are doers, business people are doers, but when you can't actually do it, that's when hopelessness comes in and you feel out of control."

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Melody Labinsky

Melody Labinsky

National machinery and agtech writer

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