THERE could be a long-term silver lining to the worker crisis gripping Australian horticulture.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences' Agricultural Commodities Report for the March quarter 2021 suggests the labour shortage may spur productivity growth down the track.
Within its horticulture forecast section, the report said COVID-19 was creating significant resourcing challenges for parts of the industry.
"But this also presents the industry with an opportunity to put itself in a stronger long-term position that is better prepared for future market upheavals," the report said.
"For example, robot harvesters for fruit are being developed and are closer to being commercially viable.
"If this technology becomes commercially viable it would help protect the industry against future labour shortages.
"Labour saving technologies could also lower variable operating costs, increasing the competitiveness of the industry in growing export markets."
- NFF set to defend against AWU challenge to piece rate payment method
- State harvest labour offer "a little bit insulting" | VIDEO
- Horticulture says more labour solutions required
There were some major caveats with that proposal though.
"However, this kind of innovation requires significant capital investment, and may also require changes to existing production systems," ABARES said.
"For example, the way orchards are laid out may need to be altered to maximise the cost and picking effectiveness of robots."
The labour shortage was the main focus of the horticulture section within this year's report which indicated a 1 per cent drop in value for the sector down to $12.8 billion in 2021-22.
ABARES said farmgate prices of some horticultural products were forecast to rise in the latter part of 2020-21, driven by an expected fall in production as a result of a significantly reduced supply of overseas labour.
"Prices of summer vegetables, stonefruit, pome fruit and table grapes are forecast to increase by between 7pc and 29pc," it said.
"Fruit prices are expected to rise most, because fruit production is likely to be most adversely affected by reduced labour supply.
"The peak harvest period for fruit is in February, March and April, meaning lower than average supply and higher than average fruit prices may not occur until well into autumn."
"These price increases are expected to be low relative to normal seasonal volatility."
The report said the number of working holiday makers (backpackers) fell by 64pc to about 61,000.
Sign up here to Good Fruit and Vegetables weekly newsletter for all the latest horticulture news each Thursday...