Agricultural workforce discussed in upper house

Mick Veitch MLC has told the NSW Upper House that there aren’t enough workers in the state’s agricultural industry and it needs to be addressed to ensure food and fibre security.

Upper House politician Mick Veitch says there is a “lack of planning” in regard to the training and maintenance of New South Wales’ agricultural workforce that needs to be addressed, also calling for a food and fibre security plan to be established.

Mr Veitch questioned Minister Bronnie Taylor – who was representing the Minister for Agriculture at the time – about the issue, focusing on Covid-19 immigration restrictions and the impact this has on employment in the agricultural sector.

Minister Taylor said that an “absolute bumper harvest” is occurring that has “provided a great opportunity for a number of young people to go out into the areas for harvesting.”

“I encourage anyone who knows young people who want to experience life in rural and regional New South Wales to put up their hand to try harvesting and fruit picking as it is a great way to see New South Wales and promote agriculture, which we are proud to say is an incredible part of the New South Wales economy. Those people can try shearing,” she said.

Mr Veitch responded with the argument that “one just cannot walk into the sheds and do the job.”

“One cannot just do a three-day or fortnight course and become a shearer at TAFE. Generally it takes a couple of years to be physically fit enough to shear a sheep well enough to make a living, and around four years to be fit enough and skilled enough to be deemed a good shearer,” Mr Veitch said.

He said the question was about what is being done in regards to workforce planning now, “which is not an issue that has crept up on [the government].”

“In February when international borders were shut we knew that we would not have Canadians to operate our harvesters, Kiwis to shear our sheep and backpackers to pick our fruit,” Mr Veitch said. 

“The lack of planning with regard to training and maintenance of our agricultural workforce in New South Wales is a serious issue that has put at risk the security of our food and fibre industries. 

“A lot more should have been done, and a lot more needs to be done going forward. This issue is not going away. It is a long-term problem that needs to be addressed.”

One solution Mr Veitch offered is a food and fibre security plan, which he described as a ‘missed opportunity’ in the budget.

“The pandemic revealed a glaring omission or error in training and workforce allocation in New South Wales: We do not have enough people to shear our sheep, harvest our grain and pick our fruit,” he said.

“The Government should take the opportunity to undertake training programs and get people to relocate into the regions. That should be covered in a statewide food and fibre security plan, but we do not have one.”

Mr Veitch also described a recent road trip through the regions that highlighted a range of issues affecting the agricultural industry.

“On the weekend I drove from Tumut through to Young and then on to Bathurst, and local people told me about the crops being as high as, or higher than, the fences. The heads on some of the canola were unbelievable, and something that I have not seen for decades,” he said. 

“There is an issue around getting enough people to do the work for GrainCorp and harvesters recruiting sufficiently qualified and trained people to work the machines. One cannot just hop in and operate a header; it requires a specific skill set that involves training, and the same applies to aspects of the shooting industry.”