Lost crops costing farmers’ mental health

5th February 2021 | Eativity editors

The scarcity of seasonal workers continues to impact growers, with reported crop losses climbing to more than $45 million this week. Sixty-five separate crop losses from five states and territories have now been reported on the National Lost Crop Register.

Growcom CEO Stephen Barnard says the current labour shortage is impacting businesses and livelihoods industry-wide: “We are witnessing a concerning number of growers reporting not just financial losses, but also a decline in mental health, strain on personal finances and doubt surrounding their future participation in the industry,” he says.

The register allows growers to anonymously report the costs of ongoing labour shortages, beyond those that are purely financial. Nearly one in every four respondents have also reported impacts on their physical and mental health, including increased working hours, elevated stress levels, loss of confidence and depression.

“It is an incredibly demoralising situation,” says one Queensland grower. “On the one hand, you just keep saying to yourself, ‘Keep going, it will get better, you will catch up’, but what ends up happening is you fall further and further behind.”

A NSW grower also reported a substantial amount of stress from “seeing an abundance in fruit, all just hanging there, dilapidating. We lost a prodigious amount of income.”

Another grower registered concern that rising stress and tension among our food producers may lead to increased instances of domestic violence.

“It is an incredibly demoralising situation”: farmers are cracking under the pressure.

Growers going to the wall

In addition to mental health impacts, most growers have said the financial stress caused by their crop losses has critically undermined their ability to invest in their next crop and harvest. Some respondents are even reconsidering their future in the industry.

Just under two-thirds of all respondents flagged reduced future productivity after struggling to harvest produce within the desired time frame this season. One grower from NSW said they were forced to abandon last year’s winter harvest.

“When the labour shortage hit hardest, we could not keep up with the ripening fruit,” they said. “The financial loss will impact on the speed of new farm developments and re-development of our existing farm.”

Five growers have been so severely impacted they are at risk of being foreclosed on by their bank, or are considering selling their properties and leaving the industry altogether.

“Our last option is to sell the farm which may end up a reality,” said one Queensland grower. “We have no confidence that there will be adequate workers available in 2021.”

Another NSW grower reported that they had been unable to harvest any produce, saying “I am also struggling to meet my commitments and living expenses as a result of this. I am very stressed and worried that the bank will foreclose on me.”

Restricting arrivals into Australia protects us from COVID, but is leaving crops unharvested.

True cost of border closures

Growcom Manager of Policy and Advocacy, Richard Shannon, says it’s important for the horticulture industry to capture and convey the hidden and unintended human costs of government decisions to stop the introduction of COVID-19 into the community.

“The candid reports to date to the National Lost Crop Register from an otherwise stoic community have been very saddening,” he says. “We are calling on federal and state governments to double down on their initiatives to incentivise Australians to take up harvest jobs, and urgently expand quarantine capacity to safely accommodate foreign workers.”

Growers who are feeling overwhelmed or are having difficulty coping should call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Growers experiencing financial hardship should contact the Rural Financial Counselling Service on 1800 686 175.