SHADOW Minister for Natural Resources and Mines and Shadow Minister for Northern Queensland Dale Last visited local graziers and farmers in Charters Towers.
SHADOW Minister for Natural Resources and Mines and Shadow Minister for Northern Queensland Dale Last visited local graziers and farmers in Charters Towers.

‘Fruit and veg aisle empty’: Covid-19’s ‘serious’ impact

TOILET paper will be the least of our concerns if the government doesn't address the threat COVID-19 poses to Queensland's horticultural industry, according to Shadow Minister for Northern Queensland Dale Last.

Recently imposed travel restrictions may mean that Bowen's usual seasonal influx of backpackers may not come, which means many producers may be unable to harvest their crops.

Mr Last has written to Federal Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton calling for visa extensions for backpackers who are already in Australia, allowing them to support farmers and continue earning an income when many are unable to return home.

Mr Last's comments echo a plea made by Bowen Gumlu Growers Association president Carl Walker earlier this week, as he appealed to the Federal Government to help keep backpackers already in Australia here for longer.

Mr Last said the issue could have serious and significant impacts on the whole nation and the solution would allow growers in the Burdekin and Bowen areas to "utilise" the backpackers and address the issue.

"We are seeing what's going on in the supermarkets at the moment with toilet paper, we don't want that happening in the fruit and veggie aisle," he said.

"Bowen supplies Australia with the majority of capsicums and tomatoes, potentially it could have a significant impact on the nation.

"We need to have urgent conversations so that the produce can get shipped and are hitting the shelves across Australia."

At a time when supporting the country's health and immunity was paramount, the Member for Burdekin said fruit and vegetables were "crucial" for the country.

"Fruit and vegetables are particularly crucial at this time, we don't want them rotting on the ground," he said.

"Imagine seeing the fruit and vegetable aisle empty."

As the picking season looms, anxiety is growing for farmers that a decision may not come soon enough, with Mr Last assuring the community that he was hoping for a decision in the next fortnight.

"When it needs to be picked it needs to be picked. You can't put it on hold," he said.

"They're worried, really worried, there's nothing more devastating for farmers to grow a crop and have to plough it back down into the ground.

"I've written to Peter Dutton and would hope for a response in the next fortnight, it is important especially as we come into the picking season."

Mr Last highlighted that this wasn't just an issue for backpackers, saying the amount of jobs available in the area could assist those who found themselves unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There are a lot of people in the hospitality and tourism industries losing their jobs," he said.

"Putting it out to the wider community of Australia, to anyone who finds themselves in this situation (so they can apply for positions)."

Federal MP George Christensen has also addressed the growing concern in the region and called for jobseekers to be married up with urgently required farm work.

"Reports coming in from the tourism and hospitality industry are that there are going to be a lot of casual workers being laid off," he said.

"These people could be deployed to areas like Bowen and the Burdekin where there are farm jobs which desperately need to be filled.

"I have written to the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business Michaelia Cash to ask if we can get workers laid off in hospitality and tourism sectors into jobs in agriculture."

Mr Last said the issue would not only assist the farmers but also the backpackers, many of whom have found themselves stranded in Australia.

"A lot of these backpackers can't go home to their countries, their borders are closed," he said.

Mr Christensen said the Federal Government was considering the options to extend visas for thousands of backpackers in the country.

"Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has advised that announcements on this front - extending the visas of these backpacker workers and other workers - will be made shortly," he said.