GIVE US A BREAK: The farmer’s life isn’t easy, and when new Government regulations constantly impact their business, it can take its toll, as it has on Minter Magic’s Darren Minter, who says he’s having a long hard look at what the future holds following Australian Fair Work Commission changes to casual penalty rates.

By JOHN DOOLEY

THE decision by the Australian Fair Work Commission (AFWC) in April to force growers in the horticulture industry to pay casual workers overtime and penalty rates was cited by many producers as “a crazy decision.”

These growers feared that the move had the potential to send them ‘to-the-wall’, and push up the price of fruit and vegetables in the process.

Effective as of April 15, the AFWC ruled that casuals on horticultural farms who work more than 38 hours a week will receive overtime, with penalties also paid for working more than 12 hours a day and night shifts.

For ‘Minter Magic’ farm owner, Darren Minter, the magic all but disappeared when he got word of the new laws while he was overseas on a citrus study tour. 

“It came as a kick in-the-guts, and the thing that gut-wrenched me the most was that we were only given 15 days to comply,” he said. “We always knew it was coming – it wasn’t a matter of if it was when.

“It’s been in the pipeline for 20 years. Like all government policies, it’s like putting a bridge across the river at Karadoc – they’re going to do it, but they never do it – and so when are they going to do it? 

“So you don’t deal with it until they actually do something – and that’s fine, just give us time to adapt.”

The fourth generation Iraak farmer and his family predominately grow almonds, citrus, and asparagus on their sprawling 265-hectare property, and this issue has caused Mr Minter to think long and hard about what he’s doing and what the future holds.

“At the time of the announcement I was in Chile, and by the time I got back, tired and jet-lagged, I had only 10 days left to comply with the law,” he said. “That sent a message to me about what the government actually thinks of my business, of my farming and fruit production. 

“I don’t know of a government department that can make a decision in six months, let alone 10 days – it sent a strong message to me about government.”

Mr Minter said paying workers penalty rates isn’t the issue, but rather the lack of a transition period to make the appropriated adjustments on-farm.

“Paying them the penalty rates and everything else isn’t a problem – I don’t like them – but that isn’t the issue, just give me some time to adjust my business plan,” he said. “By imposing it immediately, there wasn’t any adjustment time. 

“What’ll be next, another carbon tax? What is the government going to do to me next?”

The issue has taken its toll on Mr Minter, who said he has been fighting depression since the weight of the AFWC’s decision fell on his shoulders.

“At the moment there are plenty of people out there purchasing land, making corporate investment, and as a family farmer this action has made me really sit down and think about what I’m doing,” he said.

“It got to the stage where I became very depressed, and as a result, I did a lot of soul-searching, because what this had done was to trigger something in me that I had never experienced before. 

“My gut was wrenched, I felt angry, my disillusionment turned to depression, and had me thinking, ‘What do I get up for? I don’t need to’.”

Dedicated to farming

Money isn’t Darren Minter’s main driver, he’s someone who is dedicated to farming and wants to contribute to the nation’s wealth.

“I love farming, and that was the first time in my life that I actually stopped and thought, what am I doing?” he said. “Having said that, since then I have come to terms with it, and it isn’t as bad as I thought.

“I’ve gone through procedures in my head about how I can make sure everything is right, but again, no time to think about, it just happened – and that’s what the annoying part is – nothing to do with why, it’s just how they did it, that’s the principle of it.”

Mr Minter said the reality is that any additional costs borne by the farmer will have to be passed on to the consumer at a domestic and export level, saying that his competitiveness would be impacted negatively.

“Asparagus, almonds, citrus, you name it, it’s a world commodity now – it’s not a district commodity like it was 20 years ago,” he said.

“I’m competing against Mexico, that’s my competition. It’s takes more than three years to develop asparagus to a high-level of crop – five years to reach maximum production. 

“I have almonds that take five to seven years – I have citrus that has taken 10 years, and you (the government) have changed something in 15 days!

“Again it’s not the law, it’s the timeframe in which I have to adjust to it that I object to.

“It is what it is, but I thought I would have time to comply, to re-adjust, to make the appropriate changes to my operations to accommodate the changes.”

Mr Minter said that it seems that there are bureaucrats sitting in offices thinking up ways to make farmer’s lives more difficult.

“That’s the story of my life – what’s next?” he said. “I have a saying in life, ‘I know what Mother Nature is going to do to me, but I have no idea what a public servant is going to do to me’.

“Whether it’s a water issue, a carbon tax issue, whatever it might be – what’s next? I think Canberra is forgetting that we produce food for the nation, and earn export dollars for the country. I’m growing trees that capture carbon and put oxygen into the air – why don’t farmers like me get carbon credits like our European counterparts do?”

Unfair anomaly

Mr Minter pointed to an unfair anomaly in regard to the implementation of the new regulations which has given advantage to some corporate producers.

“There are a number of large corporate farmers who have workplace agreements in place, many of which had just been implemented, and so they weren’t required to comply with the new regulations until those agreements expire, which may be years away,” he said.

“Therefore if your competitor has a workplace agreement, they’re immediately advantaged.”

The other concern growers have under the new wages regime is that if they adjust the hours of their workers to avoid the penalty rate provisions, those workers will effectively be losing overall hours, and will quickly find less attraction working in the industry, creating a labour shortage.

Last season Minter Magic’s asparagus crop was drought and frost-affected, while water prices rose, and so they didn’t make a profit.

“That’s a drought, that’s farming, that’s what it’s all about, and you hope that you will make enough next season to offset last year’s losses, so with the extra costs to deal with now, I’ll see how things end up this year and then decide what the future holds,” he said.