Staff shortages in Orange threaten cherry harvest

STAFF: BiteRiot!'s Fiona Hall says she is sorted for cherry packers, but wouldn't mind a few more pickers. Photo: JUDE KEOGH
STAFF: BiteRiot!'s Fiona Hall says she is sorted for cherry packers, but wouldn't mind a few more pickers. Photo: JUDE KEOGH

Cherry and apple grower Guy Gaeta doesn't enjoy being the doomsayer, but he is worried. Really worried. He has a vision for December and January in Orange and surrounds, and it's not very pretty.

Should his predictions prove correct, the looming cherry season - which typically employs about 1,000 people in the district as pickers and packers over summer - will be a disaster. The fallout will include wasted fruit and exorbitant Christmas prices, as low stock pushes wholesale prices north.

Mr Gaeta - who described his business as "an old-fashioned family farm" - is horticultural committee chairman of farmers' association NSW Farmers.

He said that a chronic shortage of backpackers and the inability to access Fijian pickers will leave Orange and the rest of Australia's food bowls without anyone to get fruit and veg off trees and out of the ground.

"I've never been so concerned about it," Mr Gaeta said. "You don't want to catastrophise, but this is going to be a huge problem. It's already happening in Queensland with the strawberries, they can't get enough backpackers."

Mr Gaeta said that Orange had been "spoilt" by backpackers, as they often come with BYO accommodation in the form of vans or tents.

"If a picker wants to stay in a motel in Orange it's going to cost them $150 a night," he said.

Over at BiteRiot!, an alliance of local growers, Fiona Hall was finishing up the last packing of apples on Wednesday afternoon. Then her focus switches to cherries. The season is short and can be lucrative, but only if there are people to pick and pack.

"It's early days - the seeds are only in blossom now and we won't start (picking) until mid-November (in Mudgee, then later in Orange)," she said.

"Other industries have indicated a lack of staff but we've been lining up plenty of school leavers and university students. There won't be a gap year, so that has been a good source of labour. We've been proactive."

While packers are not needed at BiteRiot!, there are still opportunities available for pickers.

My Gaeta, who employed a labour hire company to source about half of his cherry workforce for this season, scoffed at the idea picking cherries was hard work.

"It's tedious, but it's not hard. A child could do it. Yes, it's tedious, but it can pay $200 to $500 a day."

HAVE YOUR SAY

Send us a letter to the editor using the form below ...