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Farmers have been getting worried for months. As the summer fruit-picking season looms, closed borders and travel restrictions mean Australia’s horticulture sector, which depends heavily on seasonal, migrant labour, will really struggle.

And that will mean a summer with fewer Australian fruit and vegetables on supermarket shelves. Consumers paying more for less. And although politicians are finally confronting the crisis — proposals to send refugees and school leavers to farms have gotten traction on both sides of the aisle — it could all be too little too late.

Higher prices, less produce

It’s no secret the horticulture sector can’t function without migrant workers — a mix of working holiday visa makers (often backpackers from Europe) and undocumented labourers — but the pandemic stopped them coming.

The numbers paint a worrying picture of what that could mean for the sector. An interim report released by a parliamentary inquiry into the working holiday program found the number of visa holders under the system halved from 140,000 in March to 70,000 in June.

Modelling from Ernst and Young suggests a shortage of 15,000 farm workers in Victoria alone, which could mean price hikes of up to 60%.

But vice-president of the Victorian Farmers Federation Emma Germano told Crikey those were probably conservative estimates. The summer could be so bad that it causes deeper, longer pain for growers.

Before the pandemic hit, the horticulture sector was hoping to expand. That’s now off the table.

“There are people who are already pulling permanent plantations,” Germano says.

“You can’t just turn an orange tree on and off. If we start seeing permanent tree crops being pulled out, by the time they’re replanted there’s four to five years lost.”

General manager of the National Farmers’ Federation Ben Rogers told the inquiry: “The industry will be confronted with a labour crisis the likes of which it has never seen before.”

Time for solutions

In trying to fill gaps left by migrant workers, the horticulture sector faces the unenviable task of upending structural forces decades in the making.

In the past few weeks, there has been a rash of proposals — of varying merit — to address shortages.

The inquiry’s interim paper suggested a “Have a gap year at home” campaign to attract school leavers who might otherwise be swanning around the Mediterranean. Some farmer groups want people on JobSeeker to pick fruit to get payments. Coalition and Labor MPs support a plan to make farm work a path to residency for refugees.

United Workers Union’s director of farms Jannette Armstrong said although all plans should be considered, politicians needed to work out how to attract people, particularly younger workers, to the regions.

The elephant in the room

Most of the recent chatter about farm shortages has omitted what Armstrong said was the “elephant in the room”: the large contingent of undocumented migrant workers who have propped up the sector for decades.

Most are underpaid and have endured terrible working conditions, victims of a labyrinthine network of shonky labour hire contractors and migration agents.

“These workers are a very important part of the horticulture workforce, and without them we wouldn’t have the fruit we eat,” Armstrong says.

“They’ve been doing the hard yards to keep this sector growing.”

When border restrictions loosen they will come back.

Armstrong and Germano say the pandemic is the time to hit the reset button and look at visa amnesties and other processes to regularise fruit pickers’ migration.

But instead much of the conversation has focused on trying to get more Australians out to the regions.

“There’s a real romanticisation of Australian workers,” Germano says.

“But the notion that [migrants] steal Australian jobs is incorrect. They enable Australian jobs up the supply chain.”

And while it’s true that without migrants the industry will have to find ways to attract more local workers, picking fruit just isn’t a particularly attractive prospect for many Australians, despite what Agriculture Minister David Littleproud might say about earning $3800 a week.

Armstrong says the seasonal nature of work, and the lack of infrastructure in the regions, are a big barrier. But mostly it’s the horror stories of low pay and mistreatment. Last week an ABC report featured backpackers who had faced abuse, exploitation and underpayment working on farms.

“Why would young people put their hand up for that?”