Aussie farmers have lost more than $38 million worth of fruit and vegetables harvests due to pandemic-induced workforce shortages.
The alarming new figures from the National Lost Crop Register come as industry experts warn that losses will increase if more is not done to attract seasonal workers to Australia.
One fruit and one vegetable grower have lost more than $10 million worth of produce each because the international travel ban meant they didn’t have enough employees to pick their crops.
Richard Shannon, spokesman for peak industry body Growcom, said farmers would keep losing crops until international travel reached the same scale it was before the pandemic.
“As a priority we have to expand our capacity for Pacific Islanders and East Timorese to safely enter Australia and take up job offers,” Mr Shannon said.
“We know there are many workers keen to get started, but right now there’s a big bottleneck getting through state and territory-based quarantine.”
At least 55 growers of berries, bananas, citrus, tomatoes, carrots, pumpkins, chilli and leafy green vegetables have reported losses to the register.
Fresh Produce Group executive director Anthony Poiner said its Queensland blueberry operation lost almost $3m because the company was short 150 harvest workers.
Dr Poiner said despite their best recruitment efforts, 20 hectares of fruit went unpicked.
“I conservatively estimate that we left over 400 tonnes of blueberries out in the field,” he said.
“We put all the effort and cost to grow this crop and just had to walk away from so much.
“The experience has been very demoralising for our team.”
National cabinet in December committed to a new scheme that would allow seasonal workers to enter states for work under specific health orders that would be confine them to those jurisdictions.
However, the states are yet to sign off on the health protocols and quarantine arrangements, and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said their cooperation was key.
“The federal government recognised there would be an agriculture worker shortage because of COVID back in March,” he said.
“In the latest example of how the Federal Government has shown agility on the issue, we have provided greater flexibility to temporary visa holders.
“While we have been throwing everything at the problem, we need the states to work out their quarantine arrangement issues to stop the costs being passed on to consumers and suffered by our farmers.”
But opposition agriculture spokesman Ed Husic accused the government of passing the buck to the states and allowing fruit to rot on the ground.
“They (farmers) need concrete solutions,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison previously lauded Queensland’s successful on-farm quarantine seasonal workers program, which had also increased capacity in hotel quarantine for returning Australians.