Coronavirus workplace casualties offered leg-up picking fruit

Workers who have found themselves unexpectedly unemployed amid the coronavirus crisis in North Queensland should try their hand at farming, according to one long-term grower.

A shortage of backpackers in Australia after the country closed its borders to all foreign tourists is expected to hit the horticulture sector hard in coming months, with many growers relying on their labour during harvest.

But Bowen-Gumlu Growers Association president Carl Walker said hospitality and tourism staff out of work after the nation shut all pubs, clubs and non-essential services on Monday, could look to agriculture to tide them over.

"We're probably fortunate in the Whitsundays, with the fact that the country has shut down tourism opens up avenues for a lot of workers in the tourism sector at the moment to switch over to horticulture," Mr Walker said.

 "Every cloud has a silver lining and I'd like to see it as an opportunity for anyone who has been thinking about dipping their toes into horticulture to come over and check out what is a very dynamic, exciting and progressive industry in the Bowen-Gumlu region.

"The upside of the downside is we may find some people who love agriculture and horticulture as much as we do."

Mr Walker said the height of the picking season would kick off around May or June and he encouraged interested parties to register their needs on the harvest trail.

"We are encouraging everyone to get on the harvest trail to register their need. Definitely in the past it has been extremely hard to find locals to do this sort of work, but if nothing else I think this opens up some opportunities for us."

It comes after Burdekin MP Dale Last wrote to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton calling for a coronavirus plan for the horticultural industry.

Mr Last said travel restrictions may interfere with the ability for some producers to harvest their crops.

"Especially when we are facing health issues, the last thing we need is fresh, healthy, nutritious Australian-grown fruit and vegetables rotting on the ground," Mr Last said.

"The horticultural industry relies very heavily on backpackers and workers from Pacific nations to harvest crops and, yes we need to have precautions in place, but we simply need to find a way to keep Australians safe and to keep them fed."

Mr Last said it made sense to allow foreign workers in Australia to extend their stay.

"One idea would be to allow backpackers and foreign workers who are already in Australia to extend their stays. There are people stranded in Australia and, if we could utilise them in places like the Burdekin and Bowen, we may be able to address the issue."

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