Berries could wither as COVID restrictions bite
As coronavirus restrictions tighten, fears are growing that a lack of pickers will see lucrative berry crops wither on the bushes.
The peak of the berry season is just months away and with travel bans ramping up this could impact heavily on the industry reliant on seasonal workers and backpackers.
Paul Shoker is a local banana and cucumber grower and Director of the NSW Farmers Association.
"Some seasonal crops will be coming on line in the coming months, like citrus and blueberries which are very reliant on overseas backpackers," Mr Shoker said.
"If the labour requirements are not met we will see lots of crops not being able to be picked and left rotting in the paddocks."
For him, it's pretty much business as usual at the moment, but he says the blueberry industry has a much shorter and sharper window.
"My neighbour has 25 acres of blueberries and needs 80 pickers, but for about the same acreage of bananas you would only need about two or three guys."
He has welcomed some of the government initiatives which have allowed for visa extensions and a greater intake of refugees to carry out the work.
"I flew back from Sydney a few weeks ago and the plane was about two thirds full of Burmese refugees.
"They don't want to come here and bludge, they are keen to work and make money.
"Australians of this generation aren't suited to manual labour as we don't have it in our culture anymore but in some countries with lower rates of mechanisation it's second nature to them."
Moving forward he would like to see a greater relaxation of measures governing Newstart.
"It would be good to see the ability for people who have lost their jobs to pick blueberries for a couple of days a week and not lose Newstart as an interim measure."
He says Australia is still the Lucky Country when it comes to fresh produce.
"We have more than enough of everything - 98 per cent of the produce sold in Australia is Australian grown. There is no need to rush. I have heard stories of people buying bananas and freezing them but it isn't necessary."
But like so many others grappling with the unfolding crisis there's a huge sense of uncertainty.
"Generally speaking the vibe around town feels like a ghost town. You get the feeling things just aren't right."