Providing housing will give a farm a much larger choice of seasonal workers. Consider it an investment rather than a cost, and you could save production losses from lack of labour
No beds, no workers!
Regardless whether you are considering employing returning backpackers, students, or enticing Aussies from their city lives, limited accommodation may be a barrier to overcome. If there’s nowhere to stay in your area, or nowhere affordable, you may not have a labour force.
Hostels after COVID-19
Before the pandemic, many horticulture regions had working hostels that attracted and provided beds for backpackers. With shared rooms and facilities, these were in a budget range that attracted even the most frugal travellers.
Unfortunately, some hostels did not survive the disruptions to their business and properties have been sold or converted to another use. A big increase in Pacific and East Timorese participants in the Pacific Labour Mobility Program (PALM) has also resulted in some backpacker hostels being converted to service them.
So, what are the options now?
Some regions have farmhouses in their district that are abandoned. Refurbishing a run-down building to an acceptable standard will generally be much cheaper than building a new one. This option is sometimes easier for local government compliance too.
Transportable buildings similar to those in mining camps will also be cheaper than a new build. Often based on shipping containers or ‘donga’ buildings, the standard of these can be surprisingly high. Whether you make it a permanent option or only for the period of your labour needs, these can be bought outright, often second hand. They can also be leased from companies that set-up the camp then remove it at the end of the season. This option can often provide pump-out sewerage which can alleviate complex local government septic requirements.
Caravans will be allowable for all but the most stringent council regulations. These can vary from purpose-built site vans, to simply tourist vans bought from the second-hand market. Older vans can be remarkably cheap and can provide an acceptable short-term option for many workers, especially if the price is right.
So long as there is space on the property, any horticulturalist can grow a patch of green lawn on which to pitch a tent or park a camper van. This will need to be accompanied by an ablution block, but provided local government regulations allow, often a concrete slab with a ‘tin shed’ facility will do the job. And if there is a scenic spot such as a creek, shade trees or a view – so much the better.
Offsetting the cost
Charging rent can offset the cost of providing the accommodation. Of course, if your season is short and therefore rent-paying tenants are only available for a limited period, it will only partially subsidise the outlay.
Not charging anything may assist to entice essential workers, but consider that sometimes when things are offered for free, they are respected less than when they have a cost. However, offering bonuses based on rent reimbursement for staying the season, or maybe reduced rent for staying a certain length of time, may be enticements to stay longer.
If none of these options are available, paying rent for a house in a nearby town to sub-let to your workers may be the answer. Establishing an arrangement with a real estate rental company to find you something could be effort well rewarded.
The easier you make it for travelling workers, the more likely they will choose you to come work for.
Calculate the real cost
Without accommodation available you are limited to only workers living within commuting distance. Rather than working out how much accommodation will cost you to provide, you need to calculate how much it will cost if you don’t have it, and cannot attract the workers you need to get your crop to market.