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‘We’ve got 80-year-olds driving trucks’: Farmers scramble to find harvest workers as border closures bite

They put the call-out for retired army officers, stood down Qantas pilots and now kids. Desperate farmers, who are about to harvest the second biggest wheat crop in a decade, are so short of staff that some will be using their primary school aged children to drive tractors and other heavy machinery.

“It is desperate,” said James Jackson, NSW Farmers Association president. “People will have primary school kids driving tractors with chaser bins and stuff for sure.” He said farmers have been scrambling to find staff wherever they can. “We’ve got 80-year-olds driving trucks.”

“The world is crying out for our grain at the moment,” says northern NSW farmer Matthew Madden.

“The world is crying out for our grain at the moment,” says northern NSW farmer Matthew Madden.Credit:Grace Quast

A year’s worth of farming work hinges on the success of the four- to six-week harvest period of the winter grain crop, which includes wheat, barley, canola and chickpeas, and the stakes have never been higher. The NSW wheat crop alone is worth as much as $3.85 billion, with prices skyrocketing given a global shortage in wheat after a prolonged drought in North America.

A bubble announced on the border between Queensland and NSW on Friday will alleviate some stress on farmers in the movement of labour.

Farmers had complained bitterly that the hard border imposed by Queensland was making it difficult, if not impossible, for agricultural workers to cross. This included contractors, who bring sophisticated harvesting machinery, known as headers, into NSW. Typically, those contractors often own multiple headers and work with a team harvesting the wheat belt along the east coast, starting in Queensland and travelling down to Victoria.

Matthew Madden, a third generation farmer who grows wheat, barley and chickpeas on 1600 hectares near Moree, welcomed the decision on the bubble but said severe labour challenges across the state remained ahead of harvest. “It will ease some issues of contractors being able to get across the border,” he said. “But the worker shortage will still be an issue.”

“If you can drive a tank, you can drive a header. If you can drive a Dreamliner, you can operate a header.”

Matthew Madden, wheat farmer and NSW Farmers Association grain committee chair

He estimated that seasonal workers at harvest time across NSW usually numbered 10,000, and they are trying to fill that gap with retired army personnel, furloughed pilots, other retired professionals, grey nomads, and university students. Campaigns are running on Facebook to recruit workers such as Operation Grain Harvest Assist, which has targeted former army personnel and out of work pilots because they have transferable skills to operate big farming equipment such as the $1 million headers. “If you can drive a tank, you can drive a header. If you can drive a Dreamliner, you can operate a header,” said Madden.

For many farmers it’s now a race as harvest begins in NSW at the end of October and the stakes are high, as crops need to reaped before they spoil. “The worst-case scenario is you lose the lot if you don’t get it off in a timely manner,” said Madden, who also chairs the NSW Farmers grain committee. “The world is crying out for our grain at the moment.”

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