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By Andrew Weidemann, Chair, Grain Producers Australia

ANOTHER big crop is forecast to be harvested across Australia this year, worth an estimated $15 billion for the broadacre grains sector.

But coronavirus is again presenting significant hurdles for the industry to overcome.

There is no point repeating what we already know about the personal inconvenience and business frustrations caused by extended lockdowns in different states.

But for many Grain Producers Australia (GPA) members, a significant and immediate challenge stemming from the global COVID-19 pandemic is securing farm labour.

This is vital to optimising the value of the 2021 bumper winter crop harvest, boosting confidence and stimulating economic recovery from successive droughts in many farming communities.

Western Australia has taken the lead on this campaign.

WAFarmers grains council president, Mic Fels, has passionately highlighted these key issues in the media and articulated a looming crisis for government's urgent consideration.

Other groups are diligently working behind the scenes - trying to solve common problems.

To this end, GPA's policy council has prioritised a national plan that involves working with its state members to help drive solutions not only for this harvest, but also for the future.

This work has focused sharply on the grains sector's unique needs.

These include securing skilled workers who have the knowledge and experience needed to operate heavy machinery, and can meet surge capacity during peak periods such as harvest and seeding.

Many of these seasonal workers have traditionally been sourced from Northern Hemisphere countries, such as Canada.

But on the back of tighter international arrival caps and quarantine restrictions - combined with other critical factors, such as the loss of working holiday maker visa holders (backpackers) - this option is severely limited.

Mobility of seasonal workers across state borders is also causing uncertainty this year due to strict lockdown measures.

GPA members are advocating their own unique solutions to find workers for the approaching harvest because of the varying rules between different jurisdictions - especially individual quarantine and visa arrangements.

But cooperation and coordination between the various states when working with the Federal Government, is also key to success.

That is why GPA is advocating common solutions for those in Canberra to deliver good outcomes in the medium and long-term.

GPA is again working with QANTAS to link airline workers stood down by COVID-19 with farm businesses that need workers.

We have also reached out to the Regional Aviation Association of Australia, offering its members the opportunity to do temporary farm work while they are stood down.

This will use their transferrable skills to operate heavy machinery at harvest.

A key link in this exchange program is the Australian Custom Harvesters Association.

Its president, Rob Gribble, has also been highly active and passionate in shining a spotlight on the need to fill skilled grain worker shortages.

Looking ahead, an "Agriculture Visa" that was recently announced by the Federal Government needs to provide long-term results for the grains industry - providing access to skilled workers.

Such a result, with a focus on multiple-entry visas, has already been highlighted in a letter sent by GPA to Federal Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, Alex Hawke.

GPA is continuing to advance changes to update and modernise the list of Agricultural Sector Occupations in the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO).

This aims to ensure these visa categories meet the grain industry's specific skill needs, as outlined in a submission to the current review process.

It builds on GPA's submission to the National Agricultural Workforce Strategy, which made 37 recommendations in its final report.

The Australian Government is still considering its response to that report.

GPA will continue pushing ways and ideas to incentivise the retention of skilled workers - especially through better training, education and awareness - to meet the needs of Australian grain producers - not just for today, but well into the future.

# this article was first published on 10 August 2021 in Stock & Land.


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