Queensland strawberry farmer Ray Daniels has been in the industry for a long time, but he’s rarely faced a bigger challenge than this season when he’s faced with harvesting 400 acres of strawberries with half the workforce of past years.
Labour shortages in the agriculture industry due to the closure of Australia’s borders to international arrivals have been well-publicised, and nowhere will that impact be more evident than at Ray’s Sunray Strawberries at Wamuran, north of Brisbane, as picking starts in earnest this month. Ray said:
“Workers are our biggest challenge at the moment. Ideally, I would employ 140 people picking in the fields and 100 in the packing sheds, plus 10 farmhands. This year we’re running about 60 to 70 people in total.”
Ray said his business, and others in the industry, usually relied on workers from the likes of Korea and Taiwan on short-term visas, but with this labour stream drying up in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions, they were now relying on seasonal workers from the Pacific – predominantly Vanuatu – and some Timorese. There’s just not enough of them at present to meet the intense labour demands of the likes of strawberries, which unlike so many other crops, still require hand-picking.
This season, Ray’s business, which features in Case IH’s current brand campaign, will produce about 4000 tonnes of strawberries for the year, or the equivalent of two to three semi-trailers of strawberries a day at the peak of the season, which is usually August/September. He says the workers he does have presently are doing an amazing job all things considered, going as fast as they can for as long as they’re able, but he’s realistic about just how the season’s likely to evolve. Ray said:
“We’re getting the picking done at the moment, but nothing else is getting done. The paddocks have never looked so weedy because we don’t have the manpower to pull weeds, we don’t have the manpower to cut runners, we’re just purely focused on getting strawberries off the plant to pay our bills.”
Aside from the human labour, Ray has a fleet of 25 Case IH tractors, tasked with the likes of bringing the fruit from the fields, preparing the paddocks and pulling spray rigs.
He’s always used Case IH machinery, appreciating their quality and durability, and the fact he can rely on them, important at a time when so much is out of his control and with the situation changing so rapidly, often with little warning. Ray said:
“The smaller tractors in particular are easy to operate and drive, too, which is really important at the moment when we’ve got a lot of new workers coming in who may not have been behind the wheel of a tractor before.”
Ray’s parents were strawberry farmers in the Eumundi area in the 60s and 70s, and after leaving school and training as a fitter and turner, working his way up through a number of different firms, he returned to the strawberry industry in the mid-90s, eventually acquiring the 400 acres he has today at Wamuran.
Growing for Perfection Fresh, which supplies central markets and supermarkets across the country, Ray is always looking for ways to grow the business, recently purchasing land in Tasmania where he plans to start propagating strawberry plants for the industry.
For the moment though, Ray’s focus is entirely on the strawberry crop he’s racing to get off and the tough decisions he’s going to have to make. This includes the timing of the removal of the first plants, which will almost certainly have to be brought forward this year.
“You’ve got to pick your battles and know what you can do, so we’ll probably start knocking them out early this year. It’s been a great season and fruit is good, so it’s a bit difficult to know you’re having to get rid of them not because the market’s down, but because you don’t have the people to pick them.”