Attracting seasonal workers to farms can be a challenge. When there is little accommodation it can be doubly difficult. What can you do?
No beds, no workers!
Seasonal horticulture work is neither practical nor desirable for many people. With most of our population living in cities or large regional centres, and farms by their very nature not being in those urban centres, to undertake farm jobs people usually have to temporarily relocate.
Add a limited choice of accommodation to the mix and you have a recipe for discouraging the very workers you need to show an interest. And that’s not the end of the story either – short-term accommodation is usually expensive as well.
Hostels after COVID-19
When backpackers were in plentiful supply, hostels provided an option that was acceptable to many. Sharing rooms were part of the social interaction, and cheaper options were often valued more highly than the quality of the facility. At weekly rates of $150-180 per week commonplace for fully self-contained lodgings, hostels in major horticulture centres with extended seasons were viable.
Regions with only a short working season and few tourism drawcards may not have enjoyed the luxury of viable budget accommodation businesses. However, so long as the weather was reasonable, backpackers were satisfied with living out of vans and tents. Growers who simply provided grassy sites and an ablution block found they could attract workers. And the cheaper it was, the lower the standard that was accepted. So ‘free’ could mean a very low standard and some would still take the opportunity.
In the global pandemic the backpackers have almost all returned home and the alternative workforce is not here for a holiday experience so seek a higher standard of accommodation. And that comes at a higher cost, if it is available at all.
Many Australians are not keen to share bedrooms with a group of strangers, cook in a kitchen which relies on individuals to clean up after themselves, and having no privacy. And without working holiday-makers in large numbers seeking this type of accommodation, many hostels have closed down, been sold, or taken in other types of guests such as Pacific workers or labour hire gangs.
Invest in your own accommodation
Some employers have seized the opportunity, especially with the benefit of low interest rates, and snapped up hostels or other share accommodation for their own workforce. This has been a smart move for those able to do so!
But what if you cannot afford to buy bricks and mortar to attract and house a workforce?
The first thing you need to be able to answer is; how much will I lose if I cannot attract workers and cannot get my crop harvested? With a vastly reduced labour pool available now, and likely to remain depleted into the foreseeable future, the cost of providing accommodation needs to be seen as an investment to protect your crop, just as herbicide or pesticide may be.
What are the options?
As farms have become larger and neighbours have been bought out, some regions have abandoned farmhouses in the district. 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 worth their salt 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 it, 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. There are also ‘glamping’ options which Aussies may find acceptable, particularly couples. Some ‘glamourous camping tents’ are hardly tents at all!
Offsetting the cost
Charging rent can offset the cost of providing the accommodation. Of course if your season is short and therefore paying tenants are only available for a limited period, it may only subsidise the outlay.
Offering the accommodation for free may assist to entice essential workers, but things offered for free are sometimes 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 that become a win-win.
If none of these options are available to you, paying rent for an empty house in a nearby town to hold until your season starts might be an unnecessarily expensive option in another time, but currently may save your crop from falling to the ground unpicked. Establishing an arrangement with a real estate rental company to find you something – anything, could be effort well rewarded.
The Commonwealth is currently funding the AgMove program to assist the cost of relocating workers, both Australians and visa holders, and up to two months of rent can often be claimed as part of the package (conditions apply). Go to the Harvest Trail website (www.harvesttrail.gov.au) for more information or contact the Harvest Trail Information Service on free call 1800 062 332.
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.