Relief for Ord farmers after ag workers get travel exemptions

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Picture: Melanie and Matt Gray of Ceres Farm
Camera IconPicture: Melanie and Matt Gray of Ceres Farm Credit: Supplied

Farmers in the Ord River are breathing a sigh of relief, after the State Government approved an interim ‘special permission’ exemption for food production workers in the Kimberley.

The exemption is subject to strict conditions that minimise the risk of COVID-19 spread while ensuring food production workers can get on with the essential job of providing food for WA’s needs.

Rubber stamped late on Tuesday night, the exemptions end massive uncertainty for farmers in the region who were close to stopping planting their crops, because they were unsure whether they would have the labour at harvest time.

Ceres Farm managing director Matt Gray said without the exemption, his business was unlikely to get staff numbers needed for harvesting and packing watermelons and pumpkins, which was expected to gather pace in coming weeks.

He was reluctant to spend almost $20,000/ha to continue staggered planting of crops, knowing there may not be the manpower to harvest and pack the produce. If it is not harvested at the right time, the fresh produce would be left to rot.

Mr Gray said about 30 people were typically needed at Ceres Farm over the peak of harvest, for picking and packing, which was set to start in about three weeks.

After being notified of the exemption, Mr Gray said he will resume plantings will continue as normal.

While regional travel restrictions are in place across WA they were far tougher and less flexible in the Kimberley because under the Biosecurity Act, the Federal Government has stopped access to the region to protect remote Aboriginal communities.

Agriculture was not deemed an essential service by the Federal Government when implementing the restrictions. The Ord River region is regarded as a major food bowl of Australia and is WA’s biggest supplier of watermelons and pumpkins.

Picture: Pumpkin picking at Ceres Farm during harvest
Camera IconPicture: Pumpkin picking at Ceres Farm during harvest

Mr Gray said the farm considered health and safety of the community was paramount and would not jeopardise that, but had strict quarantine protocols in place and would undertake any measures recommended by the Government to ensure that the community stayed virus free.

Picture: Ceres Farm is one of the State’s biggest producer of pumpkins
Camera IconPicture: Ceres Farm is one of the State’s biggest producer of pumpkins

Mr Gray said had the exemption not been approved for agriculture, Australian consumers would feel the pinch because there would be far less produce reaching supermarkets, causing prices to skyrocket.

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