Labor Shortages, Recent Floods Create 'Insane Situation' as Australian Harvest Begins


Labor shortages in Australia, which have caused tons of agricultural produce to rot, are spilling over to the olive sector as the country’s growers started harvesting last month.

Even though Australian olive growersunlike many others in the produce industryare primarily reliant on mechanical harvesters, they have not escaped the acute labor shortages brought about by Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Being heavily reliant on young foreign labourers in the produce industry pre-Covid – typically more than 200,000 backpackers would account for 80 percent of Australia’s workforce during harvest time – the country is now faced with a shortfall of 26,000 farm workers.

Local olive growers are concerned that these shortages could bring their mechanical harvesting equipment to a grinding halt.

“There are many producers in Australia who have advised our office of labor shortages for the operation of mechanical harvesting machines and olive oil processing machines, and labor for fruit picking,” Amanda Bailey, an Australian Olive Oil Association (AOOA) committee member, told Olive Oil Times.

“Labor is stretched, and finding the right connections with the skills and availability is a challenge,” she added. “Some fruit may not be able to be harvested or maybe not at the optimal time.”

Bailey, who focuses on Australia’s grassroots olive oil industry, said the AOOA is “trying to connect producers and have some of our answers coming from our backyard.”

“I believe this is a time for finding industry connection,” she added. “When harvesting contractors are working in a particular area, they should harvest for every producer in that area.”

Bailey said that is exactly the trend they are seeing presently, with individuals working in several processing plants in addition to harvesting for multiple growers.

“Pre-Covid, producers were in competition, but now they are working together,” she said.

Another challenge farmers and producers are dealing with is the mining industry, which pays higher wages and is exacerbating the problem for olive growers. “The competition is insane,” Bailey said.

Along with the worker shortage, the Australian olive industry is also being impacted by a shortage of agronomic experts, many of whom are trapped abroad due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“This adds to a multitude of factors that are creating an insane situation,” Bailey said. “[This is] a unique situation across the board and a race against the clock.”

Australia’s labor predicament has been exacerbated by the recent floods in New South Wales, the country’s worst natural disaster of this nature in decades.

“Some farmers have reported back a 40 percent fruit drop, which has been a let-down this year with us looking forward to a bumper harvest after last year’s oil drought,” Bailey said. More