Grower desperate for pickers to get vegetable crops to market

WA vegetable grower Luciano Monte on the Karakin farm where the lack of workers to pick produce has already led to the heartbreaking and costly decision to hoe in 100,000 iceberg lettuces. Picture: Anita McInnes

THE lack of workers needed to pick fruit and vegetables in WA could lead to food shortages and price rises by Christmas with one grower saying without backpackers the industry is struggling to get fresh produce to market.

On Wednesday, September 16 vegetable grower Luciano Monte, who farms at Carabooda in the City of Wanneroo and Karakin in the Shire of Gingin, hoed in 100,000 iceberg lettuces because he did not have enough pickers to harvest them.

The farm uses some automation but there were still things that have to be done by hand including the planting of the lettuces.

Also when ready for harvesting lettuces have a short use by date and need to be picked within a few days.

Mr Monte from M & G Monte & Son said he needed between 35 to 40 workers to enable him to get his crops, which as well as lettuces included celery, cauliflower, spinach, broccoli and cabbage, to market.

He said without backpackers coming to WA other growers were in the same heartbreaking situation.

“In 35 years I have never seen anything like this ,’’ he said.

“We’ve had to deal with hail and heat but that is mother nature.’’

If not enough pickers could be hired he said not being able to get his produce to market would soon reduce his cash flow by $500,000.

Liberal candidate for Wanneroo Paul Miles said the McGowan Government should regard food as an essential service and treat pickers from over east in the same way as truck drivers who were considered essential workers and allowed into the state.

Mr Miles, who is a City of Wanneroo Central ward councillor, said pickers should be required to quarantine before being able to work on farms.

Mr Monte said the workers could be contracted to one site.

Iceberg lettuces being hoed into the ground at Karakin in the Shire of Gingin because the grower did not have enough pickers to harvest them. Picture: Anita McInnes

Meanwhile, Mr Monte is trying to work out how much to plant next time, which if other growers follow suit could lead to a reduced supply of fresh produce.

Mr Miles said if a solution was not found it was possible that WA consumers could be faced with paying $10 a lettuce at Christmas.

Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the government’s focus was on mobilising Western Australians and temporary residents to fill harvest jobs.

Ms MacTiernan said WA’s hard border was in place to protect Western Australians.

 “While there has traditionally been some movement of overseas seasonal workers in the north, interstate movement is not a major source of labour in WA,’’ she said. 

 “Harvest times are roughly the same in the eastern states and in WA.

“We know there is already a shortage of workers in the eastern states: it is very unlikely WA could attract harvest workers from the eastern states, even if the border was opened.’’

She said the government had been working with industry since March to mobilise local labour for harvest.

“Since March we have funded the jobs in WA food and ag program, which includes free use of job-matching platform Studium for WA agrifood businesses.  

“More than 12,000 job-seekers and 250 employers are now registered on the platform.

 “This month we launched the work and wander out yonder media campaign, to open the eyes of Western Australians to the opportunities of agricultural jobs.  

  “We have urged the federal government to come on board and provide further support to attract workers to agricultural roles.”

Mr Monte said a picker would earn $30 an hour.