Desperate farmers offering up to $3800 for ‘gun’ workers


A weekly wage of $3800 is going begging on Queensland farms as a chronic shortage of fruit pickers leaves our world class strawberries and pineapples rotting on the ground.

Just as Queensland sugar cane farms in the 1950s offered a road to riches for the "gun'' canecutter, fruit farms now pay extraordinary wages for the competitive picker.

But Rachel Mackenzie at peak industry group "Berries Australia'' says the labour shortage is very real despite the good wages.

One Bundaberg grower has been left with no choice but to destroy half his strawberry crop, while across the states other growers fear they won't be able to harvest fruit.

"This is now a serious problem across the board in our industry,'' Ms Mackenzie said.

Managing Director Gavin Scurr at Piaata Farms which includes The Strawberry Fields at Wamuran, says Australia's backpacker population which provides the bulk of labour for the fruit picking season has been reduced by more than 60 per cent because of the coronavirus.

Growers desperate to entice young Australians into the paddock were finding few Aussies have the work ethic required for what is, unquestionably, a tough job.

"And there is this perception that fruit picking provides poor wages but that is simply not true,'' Mr Scurr said.

"We recently paid a worker $3800 for a week's work recently and that is a top picker working six days a week, probably around ten hours a day, but even when you look at it as an hourly rate, that is pretty good.''

Growers looking for the right worker have one major criteria on their mind - attitude.

"It's all about attitude - there are the real guns who just get right into it and make it a competition, with themselves and with the other guns,'' Mr Scurr said.

Gavin Scurr, strawberry grower, in a field he had to destroy because of lack of fruit pickers. Photo Lachie Millard
Gavin Scurr, strawberry grower, in a field he had to destroy because of lack of fruit pickers. Photo Lachie Millard

"And they have fun, they just enjoy what they do, they go for it and it is not unusual for them to earn $3000 a week.''

When a growers hits pay dirt and snares a "gun'' they won't let them go easily, rehiring the same worker every season and even accommodating part time work and flexible hours if necessary.

"Some really good worker may only want a certain number of hours a day and leave at 2pm and others want might only two or three days a week or whatever, but if they have that right attitude, they will be in high demand among the growers and they get the work.''

Mr Scurr who has had to destroy a portion of his crop because of a lack of labour acknowledges some young Australians will work, but few apply.

Those that do often last one day and refuse to come back.

Brendon Hoyle of Ashbern Farms which operates both at Stanthorpe and on the Sunshine Coast said he had a secured a reasonable portion of good workers for the present harvest but was deeply worried about harvesting the Summer crop at Stanthorpe.

"The situation is quite dire for many growers who simply cannot find workers,'' Mr Hoyle said.

"Summer is fantastic for strawberry consumers, with pavlovas and deserts, but we have to find the pickers to harvest the crop.''