Grain growers need seasonal labour too

TThe grains industry in Australia is large, even on a world scale.  Most seasons we are well within the top ten producers of wheat, and with our small domestic market we are closer to number five in the list of largest exporters.

Not all about wheat

Of course wheat is not the only grains commodity that we grow, with barley, canola and various field beans also featuring. 

Winter grain production is dominated by NSW and Western Australia, with South Australia and Victoria each producing about half of the big growing states.  Queensland also grows some winter grains.

Some summer grains like sorghum and beans are produced, almost exclusively in northern NSW and Queensland, but the volumes are much less than their winter counterparts.  Only Queensland grows nearly as much summer grains as it does the winter varieties.

In the past decade production has been heavily impacted by drought, particularly in NSW and Queensland.  However with most regions receiving good rains in late 2019 and into 2020, confidence was high and large swathes of cropping country were planted with winter crops.  The growing season that followed was described by many as the best they had ever seen, and one of the largest cereal grain crops on record was harvested.  NSW recorded its biggest ever of 18,661,000 tonnes.

Conditions are again looking good in 2021 with the national crop estimated by ABARES in June as expecting a near record result again of about 46.8 million tonnes.  WA will be the big performing state this year with a healthy 17.5 million tonnes forecast, although ever improving conditions are giving the industry sufficient confidence to predict a record 20 million.  Although NSW won’t achieve the record crop of last year, they are still expected to reap 13 million tonnes which will still be well above the 10-year average.  South Australia and Victoria have patchy conditions between the different growing regions, but despite below average expectations in some key districts both are still expecting reasonable results.

Size matters

A large proportion of grains are grown on large broadacre farms measuring in the thousands, and even tens of thousands of hectares.  Large, complex and very expensive machinery is used to plant, harvest and transport the crops.  It is not unusual for a new harvester to cost in excess of half a million dollars. 

Smart operators needed

High levels of technology are incorporated into this equipment with GPS positioning, auto-steer, yield monitoring and multiple cameras becoming commonplace parts of their systems.  The comfortable, positive-pressure, air conditioned cabins with multiple screens displaying every conceivable piece of information more resemble a high tech office than a mobile agricultural machine.  And with internet connectivity, monitoring of every facet of the equipment can be undertaken across the world at the point of manufacture to provide real-time troubleshooting.  For the operator of a new John Deere header it would not be surprising to receive an email or phone call from Canada to advise that a particular bearing is running hotter than it should be and providing advice as to what maintenance action to take to avoid a breakdown.

Naturally farmers and harvesting contractors will be very particular about who they employ to drive their sizeable investments.  The time and logistics required to train inexperienced operators on these complex machines can be substantial, so already-skilled operators are highly regarded and will attract well above award wages.  When recruiting, many machine owners will insist applicants must have experience before they will be considered.  Only a few take the view that they would rather train someone from scratch so they operate the equipment in the manner the owner prefers rather than come with already established bad habits.

In the wrong hemisphere

Most regions indicate an undersupply of experienced machine operators, with the numbers required topped up with overseas workers.  Although traditional backpackers have made up some of those numbers, their lack of experience has meant they could not be heavily relied upon.  However, there are young people from North America or Europe, often agriculture students or simply with a farming background, who have the big machine experience desired.  Being counter-seasonal some have previously been available to fill vacancies and are highly regarded.  Unfortunately, under COVID conditions neither of these overseas cohorts are available to the grain sector and many farms are genuinely worried that for the 2021-22 harvest they will not be able to get their grain crops off in a timely manner.

Silos need big numbers

The other part of the logistics chain where a significant number of seasonal workers are required is at the silos and grain accumulation centres.  And the numbers are substantial, with the dominant grain companies like GrainCorp in the eastern states needing up to 4,000 seasonal workers and Viterra in South Australia about 1,500.  For Western Australia’s expected record crop this year, CBH is likely to be looking for 3,000 staff to fill their bins.

This work has been favoured by returning Australian workers but working holidaymakers have also made up a proportion of the workforce required.  Good working conditions coupled with long hours provide good earning potential over just a couple of months, and qualifying for the second year WHM visa is the bonus backpackers strive for.  Without this cohort available the coming bumper season will see pressure to achieve the numbers required.

Grain can use the Harvest Trail too

Many grain growers and silo operators don’t realise they can also tap into the Harvest Trail program for support to attract seasonal workers – it is not just for horticulture.  Although the regional Harvest Trail Services offices are concentrated in horticulture regions, many have territories that extend into grain growing areas too. However the national Harvest Trail Information Service is still there to look after farms and silos in the more remote areas. 

Listing vacancies for both experienced machine operators and lower skilled grain handling jobs provides one more string to the bow of employers seeking seasonal workers.  Contact the National Contact Centre on 1800 062 332 and find out what help is available.  The service costs nothing to use. So even though fruit and vegetable picking and packing are what many people think of when considering seasonal farm work, the grains industry is also a big employer at harvest time.  And like many horticulture commodities trying to operate in the midst of the global pandemic, labour shortages are causing genuine concern in the broadacre cropping sector too.