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Community & Business

18 March, 2021

Family farms desperate for pickers as crops ripen

AFTER six years of hard slog in the hot sun, developing their country from scratch, Rob and Nikita Grima and their five children, of Grima Family Farms in Dimbulah, now find themselves looking down the barrel of crippling staff shortages to harvest this year's crop.


Nikita and Rob Grima with their youngest child Carson inspect the orange grape tomatoes that will be sold in the increasingly popular melody packs all over Queensland. Nikita said little suprises like receiving a card from a customer thanking them for growing tomatoes as they should taste, helped her through the bad days

BY SALLY TURLEY  

AFTER six years of hard slog in the hot sun, developing their country from scratch, Rob and Nikita Grima and their five children, of Grima Family Farms in Dimbulah, now find themselves looking down the barrel of crippling staff shortages to harvest this year's crop.

The Grimas have hectares of tomatoes, sweet potatoes and zucchinis that will be ready to pick from this week and still no staff on site to help with the massive workload.

Their regular crew are still picking in Shepparton, where bin rates have been doubled by growers desperate to hang on to staff. 

“They tell me each week they are coming next week/next week, but they don't seem to be any closer to actually getting here and we are ready to start picking. Nikita has advertised for more workers on Facebook, but has received hardly any response,” Mr Grima said. 

“We have been getting a few people through a local contractor, but that has been pretty unreliable. Usually only about two out five of the promised staff show up and their performance is fairly unpredictable. We are going to have real dramas if we can't sort something out soon.” 

With their new leased area now developed and under tomato crop this year, the job will be even bigger than in 2020, when they harvested 70 - 80,000 punnets of cherry and grape tomatoes per week out of their paddocks to supply local and southern markets throughout the year. 

New plantings continue alongside the picking at a rate of 30,000 seedlings every 3 weeks, planted about 55cm apart in 300 metre rows. 

“We need 20 people to pick and another 10-12 to pack for every 2.8 hectares of tomato crop and once the fruit colours, we only have two days to get it off ,” Mr Grima said. 

“We go through and pick tomatoes every three days from now on and because the cherry tomatoes are so small, we need people who know what they are doing or we end up with a lot of fruit lost from being squashed during harvest. 

“Last year’s price was pretty average and because of COVID affecting tourism, our Cairns market dropped from 6-7,000 punnets a week, down to 1,000.” 

The farm ended up with more rain than Atherton this year, receiving over 1,000mm. 

“We couldn't dig for three weeks and we lost over 8 hectares of our sweet potato crop. The potatoes ripened, then just broke down in the soil from all the moisture. The humidity has increased the level of disease across the farm, meaning yield was generally down,” Mr Grima said.

“Our next lot of sweet potatoes will be ready to pick in a week and will need to be picked weekly after that. The zucchinis will be on line very soon after and will need picking every day or two until they finish. 

“We have been trying to band together with other farmers, but there are not enough workers to go around and we have to spend time every day training new staff , that's if they turn up.” 

A little closer to Dimbulah, Jeb Katch has been experiencing similar problems with his lime, lemon and mango crop. 

“Lemon prices have crashed and the shortage of people meant we were having to pay almost double the picking rate, so I ended up just leaving one third of the lemons on the trees. Its going to be hard, most farmers, except maybe the corporates who can bring in their own staff , will have the same issues and it will ultimately result in food prices going up,” Mr Katch said. 

“The money the government are offering people to relocate to these kinds of jobs has saved me a bit. This is the first time I have ever had an entirely Australian workforce, but this is hard, hot work and a lot quit within a few days. 

“We just have to make do with whoever we can get. Some farmers are even paying the cost of quarantine for backpackers, on top of already crazy wages, just so they can get workers."

FNQ Growers chairman Joe Moro said growers from all commodities continued to report losses due to insufficient labour for harvest while backpackers continue to leave the country at a rate of more than 1300 per week.

“The loss of these foreign workers who take advantage of the wonderful lifestyle and abundant work in our farming communities is leaving a void that is making farmers increasingly anxious about their next crop plantings,” Mr Moro said. 

Hopefully fit, motivated Australians looking for adventure and a good income might step up and fill some of the alarming shortages or farmers may find it necessary to reduce production in seasons to come.  

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