Why ag needs 'essential service' rating to beat COVID-19 risks

Ag fears coronavirus shutdown risks unless 'essential' status granted

Coronavirus
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Despite working closely with a "very supportive" federal government, the NFF wants the farm and food supply chain officially deemed an "essential service"

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Farmers are being assured it's pretty much business as usual for the $59 billion agriculture sector during the coronavirus emergency, with no plans afoot for lockdowns or border restrictions on the movement of produce, livestock or farm inputs.

However, despite working closely with a "very supportive" federal government, the National Farmers Federation wants the farm sector and food supply chain to be officially deemed an "essential service" for Canberra's COVID-19 response.

"The government is clearly acknowledging the critical importance of a reliable food supply chain," said NFF president Fiona Simson.

"NFF has been assured agriculture and the food supply chain will not be interrupted, despite the closure of travel between some states.

"This is in line with the Prime Minister's commitment to prioritising lives and livelihoods.

"Provision of quality fresh produce is paramount to safeguarding the wellbeing and health of the nation."

Consistency critical

However, Mrs Simson said it was absolutely critical there was consistency across states in recognising the importance of food production and the supply chain.

Confirming agriculture as an essential service at state and Commonwealth level would guarantee measures to control the pandemic did not inadvertently obstruct food production and supply.

In Victoria, Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes has already confirmed agriculture and agribusinesses were essential services.

Victorian Farmers Federation president David Jochinke applauded the government's reassurance saying the peak state farm body had been working closely with the government to ensure agribusiness could operate unrestricted.

Recent government data showed Victorian farmers produced more than $13 billion worth of milk, fruit, vegetables, meat, fibre, eggs and grain, and support a huge processed food sector worth $38b.

Mr Jochinke acknowledged "challenges ahead" in maintaining agriculture's usual production and processing capacity in the face of potential coronavirus restrictions and frustrations, but VFF was already planning, mapping and addressing these in partnership with the state government.

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Meanwhile, federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has appointed former Department of Agriculture deputy secretary Mark Tucker as the senior farm industry engagement officer to liaise between his department and farm industry stakeholders affected by COVID-19.

Maintaining supply chain

His focus was on maintaining agricultural production and supply chains throughout the health emergency.

"He'll work with Commonwealth departments and states to ensure agriculture industry perspectives inform our decision making," Mr Littleproud said.

Ms Simson said NFF had already insisted the transport of produce from farm to market must happen unobstructed, regardless of whether it meant crossing state borders.

The logistics involved in getting essential agricultural inputs such as fertiliser, fuel and crop protection products also needed to be maintained.

The message we're getting back, from the Prime Minister's office down, is the government is very keen to make sure the agricultural supply chain isn't disrupted - Tony Mahar, NFF

Even the leading organic industry body, Australian Organic, has echoed NFF's "essential services" call, noting more than half of all organic certified land area on the earth was in Australia and the sector made up a significant and growing portion of agriculture's contribution to consumer needs locally and overseas.

Daily talks about ag

NFF chief executive officer, Tony Mahar said the peak body was in almost daily discussions with government, making sure the practical realities of farmers' needs were clear and supported.

Tony Mahar

Tony Mahar

"The message we're getting back, from the Prime Minister's office down, is the government is very keen to make sure the agricultural supply chain isn't disrupted," he said.

"Everything possible will be done from our end to ensure farm businesses can operate fairly normally, resellers can keep their doors open, and the workforce needed in citrus orchards or key facilities such as abattoirs remains active.

"Migrant labour has been an immediate concern which the government has talked to industry about in relation to finding flexible arrangements for visa workers during the crisis.

"We have confidence it will understand the sector's overall needs - including the supply chain needs for non-food products like wool and cotton."

Peter Wilson

Peter Wilson

NSW Farmers Association's business, economics and trade committee chairman, Peter Wilson, Trangie, said having agriculture rated as essential would ease the concerns of producers anxious about coronavirus leading to untimely restrictions just as many were set to emerge from three-plus years of drought.

"We'd be very concerned if we got to the point of the cure being worse than the disease," said Mr Wilson at Trangie.

"Farmers need engineering shops, mechanics, spare parts suppliers and fertiliser deliveries to support us as we go into the planting season."

"For many of our members it will be their first chance in years to make some money, if they get more rain soon.

"It's more critical than ever that agriculture is recognised an essential service so that productivity and cash flow can happen."

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