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Labor shortage and covid threaten Australia's "record-size" harvest

Australia’s agricultural sector is set for a record $73bn year but labor shortages and border restrictions are threatening farmers’ ability to deliver on the promise of a bumper harvest.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resources Economics and Sciences released its agricultural overview report on Tuesday, revealing how a “remarkable combination of events” – optimal seasonal conditions and high commodity prices across multiple sectors – are expected to mean that total agricultural production surpasses the $70bn mark for the first time.

The National Farmers’ Federation said this year’s remarkable growth was an important step towards its goal to lift agriculture to a $100bn industry by 2030.

According to the quarterly Rabobank rural confidence survey, also released on Tuesday, “Australian farm sector confidence is at one of its highest levels in the survey’s history”. But Rabobank Australia’s chief executive, Peter Knoblanche, said the biggest concerns among farmers in relation to Covid-19 were the impact of restrictions on securing farm labor and on shipping delays and container costs.

The agriculture minister, David Littleproud, said 27,000 men and women from 10 Pacific nations had been found to work in regional Australia but that only 10,000 of those could be brought in. Littleproud announced a new agricultural visa in August. It will provide a pathway to permanent residency which he said would allow workers to be part of communities rather than transient. The visa’s 30 September start date may be too late to accommodate the labor demands of the bumper winter grain crop expected in three weeks. The NFF acknowledged that this year’s harvest would be worth $30bn – a key pillar of the $70bn-plus forecast.

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