Perth strawberry growers to feel the crush as backpacker help dries up, call on families to pick their own

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Jamie Michael of WA Strawberry Growers Association.
Camera IconJamie Michael of WA Strawberry Growers Association. Credit: Jenne Brammer/The West Australian

Perth’s strawberry growers are set to see about $15 million — a quarter of their crop — left to rot because COVID-19 restrictions is fuelling a labour shortage.

In a bid to mitigate the losses, growers have opened their farms to the public for “pick your own” — six weeks earlier than usual.

Farms around Wanneroo, Bullsbrook and Carabooda opened last weekend and growers are calling on the public to pick their own fruit to help shift some volumes.

WA Strawberry Growers Association spokesman Jamie Michael said with far fewer backpackers in Australia looking for work, the manpower wasn’t available to pick Perth’s 9000 tonne strawberry crop during the peak harvest from late August to November.

The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance estimates there are about 50,000 fewer backpackers in Australia because of coronavirus.

Mr Michael said the $60m strawberry industry usually sourced 1500 casual workers during its peak harvest period, of which about 90 per cent were backpackers. This year, he expects to secure just half that amount.

His farm at Bullsbrook, Ti Produce, is already leaving strawberries unpicked because of a lack of staff, a problem which will worsen as volumes ripe as the harvest ramps up in coming weeks.

Mr Michael said while the harvest workforce usually comprised about 90 per cent backpackers, there was now a far bigger proportion of local workers employed.

The lack of backpackers and other forms of international labour is expected to bite a wide range of agricultural industries, including WA’s $5 billion grain harvest.

Crunch time will come in October when many different types of crops become ready for harvest a the same time, VegetablesWA chief executive John Shannon warns.

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