Labor drought stifles growth of billion-dollar vegetable market

Thousands of unfilled jobs in the state’s vegetable and wine industries are forcing companies to pull back on growth plans, with AusVeg SA chief Jordan Brooke-Barnett estimating that 20% of jobs in the horticulture industry of the state’s $1.9 billion are vacant.

The tech industry body’s chief executive, Brooke-Barnett, said it’s been the toughest job market in a decade for the state’s horticulture industry, which employs around 20,000 South Australians, adding that businesses are “just changing”.

“It’s a real challenge for the industry, we can’t invest or grow when all of our businesses are just focused on bringing the product to market,” he said.

“I would estimate, at the bottom of the envelope talking to growers, that we have about 20% less workers than we need, that means you’re really pushing the workforce… you can’t not focus on growth.”

He warned that the problem could drive up the cost of fruit and vegetables, and he called for a longer-term effort to attract more agriculture graduates, as well as an assessment of work visa regulations and skilled migration.

A perfect storm of COVID-related staffing issues, backpackers not being in South Australia for unskilled work, rising wages as companies compete for workers and a lack of graduates choosing horticulture degrees, have created vast challenges.

Even though issues like returning backpackers are easing, Brooke-Barnett said jobs are still not being filled.

“There’s a struggle for skilled workers…all along the supply chain, we’re struggling to find agronomists and business leaders,” he said.

“These aren’t low-paying jobs, we’re talking $150-$200,000 management jobs with a car and a house.”

The industry is struggling to find new employment models, including whether more companies could join the Commonwealth Seasonal Worker Scheme and the Pacific Labor Scheme.

Winegrowers and viticulturists in South Australia also continue to battle similar shortages in their $2.8 billion industry.

A new survey of members from the South Australian Wine Industry Association showed that 79% of respondents ranked labor costs and worker availability among the top three issues for wine businesses over the next 12 months. .

Managing director Brian Smedley said there were vacancies all along the supply chain in wineries, vineyards, bottling lines and hospitality.

Worried vineyard owners are already starting to recruit for the next vintage which won’t begin until early next year and Smedley said it hasn’t gotten any easier now that backpackers are heading back to the state.

Regional areas in particular are struggling to find workers, with Smedley saying business growth plans have been put on hold.

“We have cases where people are turning down business because they don’t have the staff to perform a cellar door function for example,” he said.

“The issue for us is that we have vacancies across the industry, on the hospitality side COVID meant we had to close parts of our businesses (like cellar doors and reception areas) so that staff move on to different professions.”

South Australia accounts for nearly 80% of Australia’s production of premium wines produced from some of the world’s oldest vines.

The state dominates the Australian wine industry with just under half of all Australian wineries located in South Australia.

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