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Stone fruit growers scramble to secure workers for summer harvest amid COVID-19 pandemic

By Jessica Schremmer, Tuesday November 17, 2020 - 08:00 EDT
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Stone fruit grower Tim Grieger says increased rainfall and the labour shortage are some of the challenges for growers this year. - ABC

Many stone fruit growers are facing the tough decision to not harvest some of their fruit this season as they scramble to secure enough workers to get their fresh produce picked in time.

While farmers report strong consumer demand and great eating quality for this season's apricots, nectarines and peaches, some just can't find enough workers to pick and pack all their fruit as the numbers of seasonal workers and backpackers dwindle due to COVID-19 border restrictions and overseas travel.

President of the Swan Hill Summerfruit Development Association and Lake Boga grower, Michael Tripodi, said moving into peak season,

"There could be farmers just walking away from blocks of nectarines and peaches, because you can't get it harvested," he said.

"They will just go ripe on the tree and drop on the ground, that's the sad part about it."

South Australian stone fruit grower Michael Trautwein is experiencing the difficulty to secure enough labour firsthand, as his short-staffed teams work long hours to fill orders.

"Between our group we could easily have another 15–20 workers, we were looking earlier … and ended up finding three workers," he said.

"It means that every day we get 20 per cent behind our production through the packing shed, so that builds up.

"It's a similar experience that the citrus packers had in winter with not enough people."

Strong demand for fresh fruit

Despite trouble getting the fruit picked, farmers markets, greengrocers and supermarkets have recorded high demand since stone fruit varieties have hit their shelves.

"Demand for stone fruit is incredible and people are asking all the time when more is coming," Adelaide Farmers Market Executive Officer Christine Robertson said.

'Shop local' double-edged

Ms Robertson said since the start of the pandemic she had seen a surge in consumers wanting to know where their food comes from and support local producers.

"There has been this great surge to shop local, shop fresh, making sure that what they buy is as fresh as possible and as good for them as possible," she said.

Dean Lamb, owner of greengrocer Watts Fresh in regional Victoria said demand had been good and consumers did like bigger fruit size, which this year's produce could deliver.

He also believed that newer stone fruit varieties broadened consumer options and catered to different consumer types.

"Especially the newer varieties are much crunchier, and we found the younger consumers love that, whereas older consumers are still looking for their soft peaches and their soft apricots and nectarines," Mr Lamb said.

Growers battle adverse weather events

However farmers are also battling unfavourable weather conditions in many parts of the country.

Hail caused some damage to fruit in Australia's two largest stone fruit production areas, in Victoria's Cobram and Swan Hill.

Mr Tripodi said when the hail hit the regions in September the fruit was very delicate and small hailstones were worse than large hailstones.

"We call it rice hail — it's like a blanket and that can do more damage than big hail where it is spread out a bit," he said.

"The fruit gets marks and it can get dints in it, so the fruit gets downgraded."

He expected it could have impacted production levels by 10–15 per cent.

For farmers in South Australia more rainfall due to La Niña conditions has been a welcome sight for trees and orchards but it did not come without effects on fruit.

Executive Officer for Summerfruit SA and Riverland grower Tim Grieger said rain caused premature softening of the fruit.

"It means that fruit that is ripening, is going to go soft quicker than it normally would and growers need to be on the ball with their picking to ensure that they get it off before that softness starts to occur," Mr Greiger said.

"You can only pick so much so fast and the fruit will ripen at its own pace, if you are not able to keep up with it, it will be an issue."


© ABC 2020

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