Automation could solve labour shortage

By Jamie Salter

Growers across the Goulburn Valley are facing the rising risk of labour shortages for the upcoming harvest season.

Apple and Pear Australia's Future Orchards Spring Walk in the Goulburn Valley will provide growers with tips to prepare their orchards and workforce for harvest during a global pandemic.

The orchard walk will discuss the labour supply outlook and steps to take to attract, retain and ensure the safety of the seasonal workforce.

APAL industry services and export manager Justin Smith said it was essential to identify as many orchard management and labour sourcing options as possible.

“Having a clear understanding of the level and timing of your seasonal labour needs is critical,” Mr Smith said.

“This year it needs to factor in transport, accommodation, separation of crews and similar efforts that can limit the risk of COVID-19 entering your property and keep your crews safe.”

A recent poll conducted by APAL found 53 per cent of growers were not confident of their chances to access labour.

Figures from Washington State University estimate global labour costs per hectare have risen substantially in recent years and were an increasing proportion of direct growing costs.

AgFirst's John Wilton said designing new plantings to be automation compatible was a way to future-proof the orchard.

“With automation in mind, future orchard plantings will need to be on flat or uniformly gently sloping land,” Mr Wilton said.

He said unless there was significant miniaturisation of robotic equipment, tree rows would need to be intensively planted.

He said while automation might be the way of the future, it was still a long way off becoming the norm.

“I think they’re at least 10 years away from being in mainstream use,” Mr Wilton said.

The Goulburn Valley Future Orchard Walk will be held on Friday, September 18 from 9 am to 11 am via Zoom.

To register, visit: https://apal.org.au/events/2020-spring-future-orchards-walk-gv/