HARVEST AT RISK: Citrus Australia CEO Nathan Hancock, Member for Mallee Anne Webster and Irymple grower Justin Kassulke fear for this year’s citrus harvest.
FURTHER tightening of border restrictions between NSW and Victoria on Wednesday has created confusion and angst for the horticultural industry in Sunraysia.
The new restrictions have directly impacted visa holding seasonal workers, who are currently picking citrus on properties located both sides of the Murray River, but are now effectively locked out.
The effect on the citrus harvest could be devastating, infuriating Citrus Australia’s chief executive officer, Nathan Hancock.
“I think it’s incumbent on the (NSW) health minister to show the connection between COVID-19 and visa holders, because that is the factor that has brought this whole thing undone,” he said.
“This whole border bubble is a ‘brain fart’ and quite frankly it stinks! It is absolute madness!
“The simple facts are that the NSW Health Minister hasn’t under-stood how our community works, how our industry works and they haven’t sought any advice or feedback from us.
“We need to change this as soon as possible.”
Mr Hancock estimates the restrictions will affect more than 1000 pickers in Sunraysia immediately, which will translate into more than 7000 bins of citrus not being picked every day.
“That’s going to mount up very quickly and I can’t see anyone coming out to save us,” he said.
“Export markets will be threatened if we are seen to be an unreliable supplier.
‘‘Australian citrus exports amounted to more than $541 million last year, with citrus from this region representing a quarter of that − so there is a lot on the line,” he said.
NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said the restrictions only applied to ‘visa holding’ seasonal workers .
“We’re talking about seasonal workers who are visa holders such as those on working holiday visas or Pacific Labour Scheme visas,” he said.
“People who live in Victoria and who come into NSW to perform seasonal work, who are not visa holders, but rather permanent residents or citizens will not be impacted.
“They are classed as critical service providers and employees and can enter NSW with a permit.”
Member for Mallee Anne Webster described Mr Marshall’s definition of seasonal workers as highly discriminatory and called on the minister to retract his comments.
“I think the statements have been quite discriminatory. I would call on Minister Marshall to retract his statements,” Dr Webster said.
“We have no particular cultural or racial groups who are more prone to COVID-19 than others, and in an area that hasn’t had a case of coronavirus for many months now, clearly there is no greater threat.
“It’s a really serious issue where producers are now left with fruit on the tree, unable to be picked. This must be resolved.”
Irymple grower Justin Kassulke, who is currently a third of the way through the of harvesting his 35 hectares of citrus, finds himself in the thick of the mess. “Everything was looking pretty good, except now we have basically stopped,” he said.
“Under the current environment, we have a quota that we need to fill by the end of this week to meet the export deadlines, and at this stage, we aren’t going to be able to meet that deadline.
“When you have the advocacy groups like Citrus Australia being unable to get answers, how is the grower going to get any answers − we can’t get any clarification.
“My picker sent me a text earlier telling me that they can’t come across the border. There’s a serious amount of money on the line, and so we’re facing some big economic losses in a year that’s shaping up to be tougher than previous years.”