As farmers frantically try to get grain crops stripped and stored in double quick time to beat this year's ominous rainy weather patterns, big strife at the ports is sabotaging their harvest efforts.
Urgently needed farm machinery and equipment imports continue to be delayed by six or eight weeks, or longer, because of a massive log jam of container freight at Sydney's Port Botany.
For the past month some international shipping lines have refused to waste time waiting for a berth at Australia's second biggest container port, instead bypassing it altogether.
Containers loaded with machinery parts, grain augers, silos and other gear have been routinely re-directed at short notice to Melbourne, leaving importers to pick up the extra cost of getting them home.
In many cases the shipments had earlier been delayed leaving Europe or America by coronavirus-related dispatch disruptions.
With many Brisbane-bound imports also landed via Sydney first, then reloaded onto coastal freighters, Queensland importers have been caught out by extra cost and time delays as their containers were retrieved from Victoria.
Even when overseas freight has unloaded in Sydney, importers were hit with random shipping surcharges equivalent to about $1000 for 12-metre (40 foot) containers landed in September and early October as shipping lines sought to extract compensation for their long wait off the coast.
"I've been in this industry for 28 years and have never seen it as bad as this," said farm and food equipment freight forwarding specialist Tony Clark, whose business handles container arrivals Australia-wide.
"Almost every second vessel due to arrive in Sydney has been unloading everything in Melbourne.
"Sydney is really on the nose with the shipping industry, but Melbourne has had its congestion problems too, partly because of the coronavirus lockdown, as well as the unplanned extra volumes it's handled lately."
Mr Clark, who co-ordinates global shipments ranging from Canadian grain gear to sports equipment from India, said a complex mix of factors had hit import and export activity.
Unexplained loading delays and pandemic-related labour force shortages in North America had pushed shipments into the "stink bug" fumigation window, further stalling their departure.
To meet quarantine requirements when landing in Australia, US exports leaving after September 1 must be treated before loading.
"I had containers ready to go in August, but they were left behind and then had to be taken off the wharves for fumigating, and then wait for another vessel," he said.
NSW-based silo and grain auger importer Ashley Webster at Geronimo Farm Equipment has farmers "crying out" for silos his company ordered from manufacturers months ago, supposedly to arrive before the big harvest.
"We've got silos we planned to be erecting five weeks ago, but in some cases only part of a two- or three-container consignment has arrived," he said.
"We're still waiting for hinges or bolts before we can actually start work.
"I know how badly this gear is needed right now, but we've got no control over when stuff's actually going to arrive."
He was hiring extra labour to ensure he could rapidly respond to construction jobs as more containers of silo materials cleared the port.
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Apart from American-made silos, Geronimo imports and assembles Canadian-made Brandt augers and belt conveyors ranging from 10 metres long to $100,000 38m units.
The Cowra-based company also has New Holland farm machinery dealerships in Dubbo and Walgett.
Machinery manufacturers and dealers have tried to make the most of the lead up to harvest to get stock on hand, but the Tractor and Machinery Association of Australia's Gary Northover said the past month had seen imports taking about six to eight weeks longer than normal.
Import costs soar
Shipping expenses had soared, too, in some cases costing importers double what they were paying early this year.
Freight forwarder, Mr Clark said a big backlog of Christmas stock for retailers, much of which should have been moving off the wharves two months ago, added to bottleneck woes for importers bringing in anything from refrigerators to lawn mower spark plugs.
Coronavirus restrictions, including "working from home" inefficiencies, had contributed to delays, too.
However, it was the demands of waterfront workers wanting a six per cent pay rise last month which escalated the problem into chaos as overtime bans and "go slow" strategies ramped up in September.
At the height of the Port Botany dispute almost 100,000 containers and 30 ships were reportedly on the water waiting to be unloaded in Sydney.
While waterside workers, whose average pay was already about $170,000 a year, eventually settled for a more modest rise this year, Mr Clark said the wharves were still frequently beleaguered by half-day stop work meetings and unexplained delays.
Stevedoring company Patrick Terminals claims it takes 20 days to find a berth at Port Botany, but only 10 in Melbourne, nine in Brisbane and three in Fremantle.
With their tight international schedules and costs typically about $100,000 for each extra day a vessel has to wait for a berth, shipping companies were frustrated, too, and had become less reliable as they resorted to delivery decisions which suited themselves.
Although the Port Botany backlog would gradually clear, Mr Clark said imports were mostly about seven weeks behind schedule, and there was still no guarantee ships would not be diverted at the last minute.
"Everybody in my industry is despairing about the way things are," he said
"I'm particularly frustrated because I have a great relationship with the ag sector and I know how tight things get during harvest."
TMA's executive director Mr Northover said while shipping delays and the shortage of air freight had made the cost of doing business more difficult for machinery companies Australia-wide, most had gone into 2020 carrying plenty of new machinery and parts after drought conditions subdued buyer activity last year.
"It's been a big cropping year with steady demand for a lot of gear, but it hasn't been a record breaker and there's no harvester shortage," he said.
"You may have to pay a freight penalty for parts and components, there's not much choice - everybody's trying to make do in whatever way they can."
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