Government digs deep to lend assistance to growing concerns

The Palaszczuk Government is adding weight to the argument agriculture remains an essential service amid the coronavirus pandemic with a hefty cash splash to benefit several Queensland farms.

May 25, 2020, updated May 25, 2020
Vanstone Produce managing director Justin Vanstone on his family farm near Gatton. (Photo: Ausveg)

Vanstone Produce managing director Justin Vanstone on his family farm near Gatton. (Photo: Ausveg)

Fourteen farm businesses across the State received grants of up to $250,000 last week from the Rural Economic Development program administered by the Queensland Rural Industry Development Authority (QRIDA).

Vanstone Produce at Crowley Vale, near Gatton in the Lockyer Valley, was one of the farming enterprises in the program’s second funding round of $3.43 million, money the State government says will go towards expanding farm infrastructure and creating 600 jobs across the agriculture sector.

Round three funding will be announced later this year, a total of $10 million allocated via the grants program of three funding rounds over a three-year period ending June 30, 2021.

Other projects announced in the second-round funding include:

  • Western Game Processing in Longreach, which is installing new energy-saving infrastructure to cut costs and expand production, tipped to create 51 local jobs.
  • A St George broccoli, onion and garlic farming business that promises to turn waste into saleable products and support up to 39 regional jobs.
  • A lamb feedlot that will be constructed at Schmidt Grazing Enterprise’s Victoria Hill operation on the Southern Downs to accommodate 16,200 head of sheep, supporting close to 150 full-time jobs across the region once all phases are completed.
  • The installation of cutting-edge technology at Marto’s Mangoes in Bowen that will allow the farm’s operators to determine the maturity of every single mango as well as check for internal defects the moment it’s ready to be packed, promising to create up to 62 regional jobs.
  • A vegetable business at Kalbar in the south-east’s Scenic Rim is introducing an automated non-destructive sweet corn line, with innovative x-ray functionality to detect insect damage and defects that will increase sweet corn plantings by 200ha a year, support new jobs and significantly increase regional business revenue.

Vanstone Produce managing director Justin Vanstone said the packing shed on his Lockyer Valley farm would allow for the increase of staff facilities and a larger workforce.

“The project and investment we are looking to make is a proven improvement to the packing process of the produce we grow,” Vanstone said.

“The project includes a climate-controlled packing area, an undercover concreted area for storage and new staff facilities.

“The completion of the project will allow us to pack produce in a climate-controlled environment all year round giving us the ability to maintain cold chain, as well as provide our staff with a more comfortable and safe working environment.”

Vanstone Produce is a fourth-generation vegetable farm that supplies directly and indirectly with all central markets in the eastern states of Australia including major retailers.

Formerly located in the outer Brisbane suburb of Rochedale before moving to the Lockyer Valley in 2008, Vanstone Produce has been supplying shallots to Woolworths for 60 years, a contract started by Justin’s grandfather Kev that is now one of the longest-standing supply arrangements with the supermarket giant in the country.

The company grows a salad bowl of small crops but specialises in spring onions, silverbeet, pumpkins, broccoli and broccolini, which has experienced tremendous growth since it was first planted by the Vanstone family five years ago.

In an average week, Vanstone Produce will send some 60 tonnes, or 12,000 crates of broccolini to retailers, harvested from just four hectares.

The new, climate-controlled packing shed will provide the capacity to expand production, improve food quality and improve conditions for existing staff while providing further employment opportunities.

Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said the packing shed extension, expected to be finished in August, would create up to 25 new jobs in the local industry, including forklift drivers, farmhands, office staff and picking and packing roles.

“We know the COVID-19 pandemic has made it tough for a lot of businesses and communities, so these additional jobs will be most welcome,” Furner said.

Harvest workers needed

Last week’s funding announcements come as the State Government leverages off the upcoming harvest season to promote opportunities for local job creation, in lieu of many overseas ‘backpackers’ who will be missing from the labour pool this year.

“Our agricultural sector needs workers, whether they be local or coming interstate, to guarantee a steady supply of fresh produce,” Furner said.

“At a time when so many people are looking for work, there is major demand in Wide Bay, including the Bundaberg area, with its significant production of tomatoes, capsicums, sweet potatoes and avocados.

“This region is going to need about 3000 people each month all the way through to the end of the year.

“Likewise, there will be strong demand of about 2000 pickers and packers per month to bring in strawberries in the Moreton Bay, Caboolture, Wamuran, Beerwah and Glass House Mountains area.”

Furner said other key areas of peak demand will be in Mackay-Isaac-Whitsunday, specifically around Bowen, and also for the citrus harvest in the Wide Bay and Central Queensland regions, specifically the Gayndah/Mundubbera area as well as Emerald.

“The avocado harvest will need people in the Wide Bay and Atherton Tablelands, and later in the year we’ll see the start of the mango harvests in the far north,” he said.

The survey to determine workforce needs was conducted by Queensland peak horticulture body, Growcom in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

“Finding the right people, in the right place and at the right time has always proven problematic for horticulture. Coronavirus has only magnified this challenge,” Growcom CEO David Thomson said.

“As an industry we’re obviously primarily concerned with the health and safety of our employees, but we’re also very mindful of the wellbeing of the residents of regional towns.

“While there are lots of people seeking harvesting employment, people should not just turn up to farms unannounced. They should go through formal hiring networks like Jobs Finder Queensland and HarvestTrail.”

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