Why this perfectly good asparagus is being left in the field

The asparagus at Mulyan Farms outside of Cowra in central west New South Wales is bursting out of the ground, but for the second year in a row there are no workers to harvest it.

Key points:Crops are being left in the field as border closures and travel restrictions impact the agricultural workforce for the second year in a row.The ongoing worker shortage caused by the pandemic has forced vegetable farmers to change how and what they grow. Growers are investing in automation and mechanisation as some predict the shortage of workers will continue long after the pandemic is over. 

The business, established in 1886 and now owned by Ed Fagan, has always relied on some form of "migrant labour" but travel restrictions and border closures have meant the usual workforce was unavailable.

"Trying to grow a crop that costs a lot to harvest but has a really high end value … [while] you're reliant on insecure labour — it's a very risky business," Mr Fagan said.

A spear of asparagus poking out of the ground.
Asparagus is a perennial crop that requires lots of workers picking every day for weeks when it starts to sprout.(ABC Rural: Hugh Hogan)

He said the labour situation in agriculture had been getting harder to navigate for years, but the pandemic was a "nail in the coffin" for many labour-intensive crops on his farm.

The operation had stopped growing crops like baby spinach, iceberg lettuce and brassica crops and was now focused on what could be mechanically harvested, like beetroot and popcorn.

"But [popcorn] is non-existent this year because of a lack of sales due to cinemas being closed.

"Anything that's mechanical for us is worth looking at but anything that's got a high labour content has to be seriously special for us to consider it."

Mr Fagan said they were also trying to develop ways to mechanically harvest crops like asparagus that traditionally needed to be hand-cut.

Automation in packing

A man standing next to a box of onions
Tim Groom says Charlton Farm has invested in automating processes in the onion packing shed.(ABC Rural: Lachlan Bennett)

In northern Tasmania, Charlton Farm produces, sorts and packs around 10,000 tonnes of onions every year for domestic and international markets.

Director Tim Groom said the company had invested in automated bagging equipment a few years back.

"It's all automatic now; a bale of bags has to be placed on the bagger and the rest of it is just a matter of supervising the machine," he said.

It was an expensive upgrade, but it has replaced several workers in the shed.

It was also a timely investment, as Mr Groom said COVID had accelerated the ongoing trend of reduced availability of workers.

"It's accelerated the need to look at ways of automating processes," Mr Groom said.

Both Mr Fagan and Mr Groom believe the labour shortage will be around for a long time, even after borders are opened.

"I can't see it [labour shortages] going away quickly … It's going to hang around for quite a few years to come," Mr Groom said. 

'Acute' shortage driving innovation

A bunch of onions
The process of grading onions is proving difficult to automate according to Tim Groom.(ABC Rural: Lachlan Bennett)

Simon Drum is the managing director of PSVC Advisory, a company focused on agribusiness solutions.

He says the labour situation in agriculture is as bad as it has ever been without working holiday makers or backpackers.

Mr Drum noted workers from the Pacific Islands had still managed to access Australia during the pandemic, but quarantine costs have made the process "exceptionally" expensive.

"The numbers of Pacific Islanders working on Australian farms is higher than it's ever been but hasn't fully accounted for the drop in working holiday makers," he said.

"Right now, the shortage of labour for agriculture is as acute as it has been."

Mr Drum said the shortage was driving innovation across the industry as farmers have adapted their businesses to function with fewer workers.

"There's lots of talk about automation but that never happens overnight," he said.

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