Make sure you’re recognised as a critical service, get the best possible access to rapid antigen tests (RATs) and beware of the toll that Omicron positive and close contact isolation requirements will have on the workforce – particular supply and distribution chains.
That was the advice of Tony Mahar, chief executive of the Canberra-based National Farmers’ Federation, who spoke to members of the Federated Farmers NZ Dairy and Meat & Wool Councils via Zoom last week. The aim of the session was to learn any lessons from across the Tasman around handling the surge in Omicron COVID cases.
In one respect at least, the NZ and Aussie farmer experience was exactly the same: the struggle to get workers on farm. The restrictions on bringing in workers and the “non-arrival of planes, and the lack of those backpackers and other workers doing the shearing and harvesting circuit [made it a real struggle],” Tony said.
Despite the usual drought conditions and fires in parts of Australia, it was a record harvest in some states and the lack of drivers for headers, trucks and other machinery was severe. Farmer organisations even reached out to current and ex-servicemen with heavy vehicle and machinery experience to pitch in. Hundreds answered the call, especially in New South Wales.
Another initiative, spurred by how dire the need, was to look to recruit school leavers “but that didn’t really go anywhere. It’s not a great look when some of these youngsters wouldn’t even have had their car driver’s licence.”
Positive cases, and isolation periods for close contacts, decimated some logistics supply chains, distribution networks and the ranks of those stacking supermarket shelves. Aussie consumers had had to contend with the likes of toilet paper and pasta being unavailable earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic but in the lead-up to last Christmas and the following few weeks, many supermarket shelves were also bare of meat products, and to a lesser extent dairy products – something that had never happened before, Tony said. “It was a real shock.”
“We were really quick to get off the mark with the government around making sure that agriculture was seen as an essential service so that when RAT tests were made available agriculture workers were in that immediate priority list.
“Health care workers were first in line but farmers were in the first group of being able to access rapid antigen tests, so they could get back to work quicker.”
Answering Council members questions, Tony said that generally the Australian agriculture sector had embraced the need to get vaccinations and boosters.
“I mean there might have been some small towns and pockets where rates were lower but generally there was acceptance [of the need to get vaccinated] pretty much across the board.”
Tony said there was definitely fatigue and a toll on mental wellbeing among many farmers brought on by Omicron, workforce issues “and businesses generally having to deal with one thing after another”. Initial delays in availability of sufficient RATs caused major frustration.
But given the relative isolation of many farms, and the fact that in many cases the owner and one or two workers can keep on working (if they’re well enough) without the risk of spreading the virus wider, “the impact has been less intense than in some other industries,” Tony said.