Wine producers lose seasonal workers due to border closures

With tightened border restrictions between New South Wales and Victoria, many wine producers are left without skilled seasonal workers to finish important winter work.

Despite agriculture being named an essential service for cross-border travel, these grape growers are left without hands to finish the crucial job of pruning their vines — that helps secure a good crop for the next season.

For Moama grower Richard McLean, he lost all of his workers midway through winter pruning.

"We've had workers on and off the property over the past month, but with new border regulations coming into force, they can't work," Mr McLean said.

Victorian pruning teams

"We grab pruning teams from places like Shepparton, that is across the border by about an hour," Mr McLean said.

Mr McLean is unsure why these seasonal workers — many who hold visas — are excluded from agricultural work.

"Pruning is one of the cornerstone events of the viticultural calendar," Mr McLean said.

"It sets up our crop load and positioning, if we don't prune correctly, we don't grow the sort of grapes that we are aiming to grow."

Difficult to replace

He said with only a one-month window of opportunity left to finish the work, his 20 skilled workers would be difficult to replace.

"It's going to be almost impossible to replace them. It's a skill that is learnt over time," he said.

"It's really important to us that they know what they're doing, having 20 new people would be a nightmare — we couldn't supervise."

He said the situation was the same as every other vineyard in the area.

Just like Moama, there are towns all along the river from Mildura, down through Robinvale, Swan Hill and further down towards Albury that all rely on seasonal workers coming in from Victoria."

Tough blow

For Beechworth grower Mark Walpole, the loss of seasonal workers is an added blow to an already tough season.

"We've had French backpackers here for more than a year," Mr Walpole said.

"They've helped with dropping fruit on the ground after the summer bushfires smoked us out, and the fruit was pretty much written off.

"We moved straight from dropping fruit to pruning."

As soon as news broke of the tightened border restrictions, his workers decided to leave the state before it was too late.

"We probably had a couple of weeks of work left at the vineyard and were halfway through a pretty major reworking program on one of the vineyards," he said.

French backpackers

French backpackers Elea Fournier and her partner Morgan Patenere were two of the workers on Mr Walpole's vineyard — they were sad to leave.

The pair, who both had a working holiday visa, crossed the Victorian-NSW border late on Tuesday.

"The first time we left was because of the bushfires, now we have to leave Mark again," Ms Fournier said.

"We wanted to stay a few more weeks and finish the job. We learnt a lot about the vines — it was very interesting to work there."

Mr Walpole is not sure about what the future holds.

"It's very much an unknown now going into spring, the growing season, we obviously need a lot of labour for things like shoot fitting, disbudding and foliage lifting.

"Our last pay cheque from that vineyard was in September 2019, the next we will see will be March 2021."

Yield figures

Wine Victoria Chair Angie Bradbury said it had been a sudden blow to lose these seasonal workers during winter.

"It's mission-critical because the growing season waits for no-one," Ms Bradbury said.

"It's critically important to get the right yield and set up the vineyard for winter."

She said recent national yield figures had been released from the last season, and it was a loss Australia-wide.

"Nationally, the total crush was down 12 per cent from the year before. In Victoria, there was an average decline of 30 per cent," she said.

"That varies significantly from a region-to-region basis, in the burn zones, some producers lost significant yields of up to 70 per cent, and some lost everything," she said.

She is working closely with Agriculture Victoria to help support producers.

"We need to develop a speedy solution," she said.

"But the work is really needed on the ground right now."

Original article published by msn 
By Edward Hynninen
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