Vegetable farmers are preparing for a future with fewer workers

The asparagus at Mulyan Farms outside of Cowra in central west New South Wales is bursting out of the ground, but for the second year in a row there are no workers to harvest it.

Key points:
Crops are being left in the field as border closures and travel restrictions impact the agricultural workforce for the second year in a row.
The ongoing worker shortage caused by the pandemic has forced vegetable farmers to change how and what they grow.
Growers are investing in automation and mechanisation as some predict the shortage of workers will continue long after the pandemic is over.
The business, established in 1886 and now owned by Ed Fagan, has always relied on some form of “migrant labour” but travel restrictions and border closures have meant the usual workforce was unavailable.

“Trying to grow a crop that costs a lot to harvest but has a really high end value … [while] you’re reliant on insecure labour — it’s a very risky business,” Mr Fagan said.

A spear of asparagus poking out of the ground.
Asparagus is a perennial crop that requires lots of workers picking every day for weeks when it starts to sprout.(ABC Rural: Hugh Hogan)
He said the labour situation in agriculture had been getting harder to navigate for years, but the pandemic was a “nail in the coffin” for many labour-intensive crops on his farm.

The operation had stopped growing crops like baby spinach, iceberg lettuce and brassica crops and was now focused on what could be mechanically harvested, like beetroot and popcorn.

“But [popcorn] is non-existent this year because of a lack of sales due to cinemas being closed.

“Anything that’s mechanical for us is worth looking at but anything that’s got a high labour content has to be seriously special for us to consider it.”

Mr Fagan said they were also trying to develop ways to mechanically harvest crops like asparagus that traditionally needed to be hand-cut.

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