Where blue is the new black

Most Australians will know of the Big Banana sitting prominently beside the Pacific Highway at Coffs Harbour on the Northern NSW coast.  Built in 1964 to attract attention to a grower’s roadside stall, it lays claim to being Australia’s first ‘big thing’ and was indicative of the dominance of the banana industry in the region at the time.

Being the only location in NSW where the Great Dividing Range meets the sea, the hilly countryside surrounding Coffs has proven to be more viable for berries than bananas in the modern context.  Although established growers may lament the demise of their once profitable industry, the younger generation of farmers are more likely to pick blueberries and raspberries than hump bananas.

As a major regional centre Coffs Harbour is home to over 75,000 residents and continues to steadily grow, with an almost 25% population increase expected in the next 15 years.

With a mild winter climate the district has long been popular with tourists who are serviced by a large number of motels, B&B’s, guest houses and caravan parks.  In addition to many grey nomads pausing for a few days, weeks or even months in their caravans and RVs, younger travellers attracted by nearby surf beaches are more likely to stay in one of several backpacker hostels.

Blueberries rule!

About 25km to the north of Coffs is the community of Woolgoolga which features an impressive Sikh Temple established in 1968.  The horticulture industry surrounding Woolgoolga has a proud ethnic Indian tradition.  Although Punjabi is still spoken in some homes, most of the local population are at least third or fourth generation Australian.

At the start of the new millennium, with the downturn in local banana production and the development of blueberries as an alternative crop, a handful of Sikh community family farms formed OzBerries.  Just over a decade later this became the Oz Group Cooperative based in Woolgoolga.  In 2017, just two years after strategically aligning themselves with the Driscoll’s berry brand, Oz Group claimed to be the largest supplier of blueberries in Australia.

Just another 15km further north is the large Berry Exchange farm owned by the Costa Group who are also partnering with Driscoll’s. The farm uses plant husbandry techniques to manipulate the harvest timing of raspberries and blackberries to complement the period when blueberries are out of season so they can produce fruit all year round.  Needing well over one thousand workers during their peak, the requirement for seasonal workers is very high.

Bananas and berries are not the whole story of horticulture in the region surrounding Coffs Harbour with avocados and macadamias also produced, along with some vegetables.

Finding labour in COVID times

In July of 2020 the region received the services of a regional harvest office for the first time.  The new Harvest Trail Service contracts issued by the Department of Education, Skills & Employment have resulted in Coffs Harbour now having a permanent regional office with local staff available to assist growers with the sourcing and supply of seasonal workers.  Supported nationally by the Harvest Trail Information Service, the Moonee Street office has quickly established relationships with growers, accommodation providers and other stakeholders servicing the horticulture industry. 

In trying COVID-19 conditions, which has seen the number of backpackers presenting for work decimated, the Harvest Office has been the conduit for directing both remaining international workers and Australians towards growers needing pickers and packers.

Labour supply – a seller’s market

Blueberry picking is very labour intensive and many seasonal workers are needed during spring and through most of summer.  The pandemic has hurt this industry badly with a shortage of pickers becoming the norm during the 2020 harvest.  Established workers have been enticed to work longer hours to minimise production losses, which has only been partially successful and some berries have remained unpicked, resulting in losses for growers.  Picking piecework rates have been increased and bonuses offered for workers to remain for the entire season, with some success.

Some growers with a good reputation on social media are finding workers are still approaching them, while others still struggle to find sufficient labour.

A challenging end to the season

With COVID-19 having depleted the supply of young international visitors, some accommodation providers as well as farms have been impacted heavily.  Hostels have had many empty beds as backpackers have left Australia in droves, and health restrictions have limited the shared nature of hostel accommodation.  However, as restrictions have eased and the peak summer holiday period approaches, bed bookings are filling fast and expected to be at capacity before Christmas.

Once school holidays start and remaining accommodation options are filled, the supply of seasonal workers could tighten further.  Most growers will be looking forward to the harvest being completed early in the New Year.

Coffs Harbour is a thriving place, popular with tourists and seasonal workers alike.  Although this year has had a different buzz, 2020 has been a challenging year for some and the challenges will remain for a time yet.