Seasonal workers to help save local harvests

Orchardist Sue Finger, Apia Samuel, Kaltac Takaua and Mary-Anne Thomas MP.

By Jed Lanyon

Some 200 Pacific Island workers have taken to Victorian farms to increase seasonal workforce, including to Yarra Valley orchards during apple picking season.

Minister for Agriculture Mary-Anne Thomas met with workers at Launching Place’s Vernview Orchards as they started their first day on the job on Tuesday 6 April.

The workers were among the first of 1500 to fly in from Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Samoa last month as part of the restart of the seasonal worker program.

“We have an agreement in place with the Tasmanian Government for up to 1500 workers to arrive and support the big Victorian harvest,” Ms Thomas said.

“What the pandemic has exposed is that the horticultural industry is over reliant on overseas workers, that’s why the Victorian Government has taken a multi-pronged approach to support our horticultural industry and our growers across the state.

“In any given year the majority of workers come under the backpacker scheme, now backpackers are not coming back anytime soon so it’s important that we all work together to find other ways to get labour to our farms.”

Vernview owner Sue Finger said she is currently employing 15 seasonal workers from Vanuatu, nine who had been in Australia since March last year and six who arrived on Good Friday.

“It was getting pretty desperate. Coming up to Easter all of our team were working particularly long hours,” she said. “We were working weekends and nine and a half hour days just to get on top of it… With the guys here now we hope to be on top of things by the end of this week or early next week.”

It was the first day in the orchards for Apia Samuel, a Vanuatuan man from the island of Malekula. He said he came here to help support his family back home.

“It’s a privilege to come here to support my family,” Apia said. “I think i’m feeling good when I’m doing this job, out in the sun doing my work with my fellow friends.”

For Kaltac Takaua, a father of four from Pele island, he is yet to meet his daughter Daisy who was born while he was isolated in hotel quarantine in Tasmania.

“When I was in my first night in quarantine, that is when my wife went into labour,” he said. “For me, I’ve never been in quarantine. It’s kind of like living in a prison cell.”

Despite the quarantine, he said it was worth it to make the journey after Covid-19 severely hampered Vanuatu’s tourism and economy.

Ms Finger said Vernview had potentially one of the biggest apple crops this year across Australia and that the orchard would usually plan 12 months in advance for workforce requirements.

“We’ve got quite a few Australian workers on the farm who are our permanent workforce but during harvest season we rely on the seasonal worker program and have for the last eight years.

“We were lucky, we’ve got the guys coming in off the first plane load but for other farmers around Victoria and around Australia it is a particularly stressful time.”

For other Yarra Valley farmers, they may not have been so lucky as Visit Yarra Valley notes the end of summer coinciding with the season’s end for other favourites such as blueberries, strawberries and cherries.