With COVID-19 disrupting backpacker availability for fruit picking and harvest work, Harvest Trail Services are helping Australian growers explore a new market for staff. Their own backyard.

Oakes & Sons, a family-run business producing pineapples and sugar cane, operates at seven locations around the Maroochy River in Queensland. As the COVID-19 pandemic set in, brothers Gordon and Murray who took over the business in 1981, had concerns about staffing. But they needn’t have worried. Local recruits supplemented backpackers initially, before taking over completely as international travel almost completely ceased.

Gordon Oakes and his local MADEC Harvest Trail rep, Amy Nash

Crops at Oakes & Sons

Established in 1963 with sugar cane plantations, in 2002 the family began exploring alternative crops, ultimately landing on pineapples.

Of the Oakes & Sons sites, five produce sugar cane and two pineapples. With around 300 acres dedicated to pineapples, the business grows up to 1.2 million pineapples every year. The group are currently working through changes to their production approach and crop numbers, and will likely reduce their pineapple crop slightly.

Pineapples are produced year-round, but peak between January and March, and again between July and September. Gordon and Murray like to have between 10 and 12 workers year-round, for managing pineapple crops.

Peak season for sugar cane harvesting is June to November. Sugar cane harvesting is mainly managed with machinery, so labour requirements are lower.

The effect of COVID-19 on worker demographics

COVID-19 disrupted worker supply at Oakes & Sons, but not in the way you might think. The team never struggled finding workers – but the demographics changed overnight.

Before the pandemic, all workers were backpackers. Gordon and Murray would source them through local hostels. Once COVID spread throughout Australia, bringing with it travel and border restrictions and lockdowns, backpackers seeking work dropped off, seemingly overnight.

The brothers pivoted to using Harvest Trail Services to recruit staff.

Using Harvest Trail Services to bolster staff

The past season at Oakes & Sons was a mix of Australians and overseas visitors. This season, all staff at Oakes & Sons have been either local or travelling Australians.

Using Harvest Trail is an ‘easy process,’ say the brothers. ‘It saves us time recruiting – we just call our local rep and she finds us someone within a couple of days.’

The brothers say they recommend using Harvest Trail Service to other growers and have no complaints with the service.