Granite Belt growers score big in industry-first incentive
Granite Belt strawberry farmers are hanging their hopes for the upcoming season on an industry-first incentive to attract desperately needed seasonal workers to the region.
The new initiative from the Queensland Strawberry Growers' Association will give new employees the opportunity to accrue 'points' while working on farms across the state from April to October this year.
All participants will then be in with the chance to take home a $100,000 cash prize at the end of the season.
QSGA president Adrian Schultz said COVID travel bans had dealt a devastating blow to all producers reliant on seasonal workers to pick and pack their crops each year, with only a handful remaining of the usual 70,000 required for the winter harvest.
Mr Schultz said the tough autumn season for Stanthorpe growers was the "canary in the mine" that spurred pulling together the industry-first incentive in only a few weeks.
"Once our season started, we realised we only had about a quarter of the workforce we needed, and even though we'd had plenty of interaction with the government things were happening very slowly," he said.
"It's a step we thought we had to take, because we really don't have any other option. The Pacific Labour Scheme is successful, but it's bottlenecked with quarantine … and half go into the hospitality sector.
"We're pretty confident it will work, but it's not a long-term fix for what needs to be done for horticulture in Queensland and Australia … next year's winter crop and the year after, there isn't going to be any backpackers at all."
Mr Schultz said the program was also looking to expand on the "typical" seasonal worker, inviting grey nomads, international students, teenagers on a gap year, and anyone else willing to undertake farmwork to take part.
With his own and many other farms already planting less than two thirds' of their usual crop, Ashbern Farms manager Brendon Hoyle hoped the QSGA initiative would also help improve the industry's reputation.
"We understand the strawberry industry does have some notoriously bad reputations, where workers were possibly exploited or paid unfairly. We're really hoping to bridge that gap and encourage people to give it a go," he said.
"We're trying to get a step ahead of the game, so it's about getting people trained up throughout the slower winter season and then offering them work in Stanthorpe when our busy season hits in August to October.
"It gets people back on the farms, and it's not just picking and packing work. There's a lot of skills to be learned in the agronomy side of things or tractors and machinery, and that never stops."
For more information or to register for the QSGA initiative, click here.