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3 November, 2021

Costly solution to secure farm workers

THE plight of farmers trying to secure enough workers to harvest crops has been laid bare as part of a development application to create accommodation for them at an Atherton caravan park.

By Robyn Holmes

Seasonal workers harvest bananas on the Howe family farm at Mareeba.

Chelley and Peter Howe, of Rock Ridge Farming, put their case to Tablelands Regional Council in a desperate plea to approve the project, slated to cost upwards of $3 million, so they can accommodate up to 124 seasonal workers required to harvest their banana and avocado crops. 

“We will have to invest $3 million to $5 million – we don’t really want to do this but we have no choice,” Mrs Howe told the council. 

Finding enough seasonal workers is a problem plaguing farmers throughout the country with the lack of backpackers in Australia due to COVID, forcing them to bring in Pacific Islander workers who must be provided with accommodation and support. 

The Howe family told council they required up to 250 workers when crops like avocados and bananas have to be harvested, with the workforce usually split 50-50 between locals and Pacific Islanders.

“Pre-COVID, we used to get around 15-20 inquiries a day from backpackers wanting work to now getting maybe two a week,” they told council, forcing them to bring in Pacific Islanders to fill the gap. 

“We are now direct employees which means we are responsible for their accommodation and other things so we are really have to be like parents while they’re here,” Mrs Howe explained.

“We have to educate them on proper hygiene, arrange and take them to their medical appointments, advise them about things like drink driving and even that they can’t just walk into people’s backyards like they do at home.”

The family purchased the caravan park on the corner of Robert Street and Twelfth Street, Atherton and have already invested $100,000 on renovating the facility, with the intention to retain the tourism component of the park and develop the other section with demountable buildings to cater to the workers. 

The project involves 24 self-contained rooms with bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and lounge areas, six bunkhouses, amenities buildings, communal recreation building, communal kitchen, outdoor recreation areas, reception and caretaker’s accommodation. 

Some residents near the caravan park expressed concern about the project, particularly on social media, with only one properly made submission against the proposal.

The writer cited issues such as the high density, noise, security, fencing and the effects on tourism. Councillors were also concerned that the development was situated in a lowdensity residential area but their position softened after hearing the Howe family put their case. 

“I was conflicted by the application because it is in a low-density residential area and goes against the strategic planning framework of council. I was not convinced by the report but I have been convinced by the deputation this morning,” Cr David Clifton said.

Cr Clifton wanted an assurance from officers that any compliance issues would be dealt with quickly and effectively. 

Deputy Mayor Cr Kevin Cardew recognised the importance of the farming sector to the local economy and the issues facing them in relation to workers. 

“We need to assist farmers to get their produce to market because our farmers are our economic drivers,” he told the meeting. 

Cr Dave Bilney said he was comfortable voting for the proposal because he had been assured that the tourism component of the caravan park would be retained. 

Council approved the Material Change of Use unanimously and the project will come back to council for building approvals.

 Mrs Howe told The Express work on the project would start early next year and expected it to be completed by April.

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