Labour woes threaten melon industry
When it comes to harvesting fruit, which would you rather do if you had the choice: pick tiny berries from a bush, or lug 15kg-plus watermelons for six or seven hours a day? No doubt you’d choose the former, and you wouldn’t be alone. The Australian melon industry is currently facing another season without teams of hardy young backpackers to help with their harvest, and many are unsure if they’ll have the numbers required to make it work.
Some melon farmers have had to make the decision to abandon their crops and simply plough them back into the ground, while others haven’t even planted a crop this year, as they were unable to guarantee that they’d have the labour required for harvesting.
In his new role as Melons Australia Executive Officer, Johnathon Davey says that the impact of ongoing labour shortages on the melon industry has varied from farm to farm.
“If you’re a smaller grower then you’re going okay, but if you’re a bigger grower who needs a larger number of staff, that’s where a lot of people are starting to struggle,” he says. “Most of the industry has managed to scrape through this past year, and I’ve just been told that Northern Queensland is seeing a good strong push of backpackers moving up there at the moment, which is where our season is currently producing the majority of melons.
“But when the season turns and the southern states up to Southern Queensland start producing again, we’re very concerned the numbers just aren’t going to be there.”
Davey was recently in Mildura, Victoria, while growers were finishing up their harvest, and they told him that the area – which is home to a vast array of horticultural operations and is usually swarming with backpackers on seasonal work stints – was depressingly quiet.
“They were telling me that normally they’d walk into one of the local pubs and there’d be 150 to 200 backpackers in there,” Davey says. “They were lucky if they were five to 10 now.”
Melons like watermelon, rockmelon and honeydew – as well as some newer varieties such as Piel de Sapo and Orange Candy – are produced across most Australian states and territories, and the vast majority of melons that you’ll find in stores are Aussie-grown.
“You can be 99 percent certain that when you’re picking up melon in the supermarket or the fresh fruit grocer that it’s grown and produced in Australia,” Davey says.
Aussie melons are also produced under the Safe Melons program, which provides growers with a best practice guide to reduce the risk of microbial contamination of their produce.
“Rockmelon and honeydew, for example, undergo a cleaning process before getting to market,” Davey says. “The Safe Melons program is about setting the standards of what we expect from growers by way of the cleaning process and the handling process.
“It also gives growers the confidence that they’re producing a safe product for consumers. It’s something that we take a lot of pride in.”
So while you’re probably not keen to head off to help with the next watermelon harvest (although if you are, we love you), you can show your support for our melon growers by buying more Aussie melons. They’re available year-round, although their supply peaks in summer. Not only will you be safe in the knowledge that they’re clean, green and Australian, you’ll also be helping to give a little back to the growers who give so much.
To find out more about Australian melons, including some surprising recipe ideas, head to melonsaustralia.org.au