New incentives, subsidies and programs are being rolled out in a bidding war by the states to solve a chronic shortage of farm labour.
The $13 billion annual horticulture sector, in particular, relies heavily on overseas backpackers and interstate seasonal workers to harvest crops.
COVID has drastically shrunk this workforce leaving fruit and vegetable growers across the country scrambling to find seasonal labour.
Cash and other incentives to lure some of the thousands of Australians who lost their jobs because of COVID into the bush to do farm work have largely failed.
Queensland strawberry growers are now offering cash prizes of up to $100,000 in a bid to attract enough overseas workers to harvest the state's crop this winter.
People who harvest Queensland strawberries will be in the running to win 10 individual prizes of up to $100,000 each.
Strawberries have to be picked every two to three days across a long period of time.
"Without pickers and packers, a farmer can lose entire blocks to disease issues very quickly," Queensland Strawberry Growers Association marketing manager Jane Richter said.
Northern territory melon growers are in the same boat.
The Northern Territory Government has launched a $745,000 campaign to find 200 workers after plans to source a labour force from Timor Leste were because of coronavirus.
The NT government will spend $200,000 on a support package to give businesses access to up to $1000 per worker for up to 200 workers to pick watermelons and rockmelons.
It will also fund a $480,000 loyalty bonus to help businesses retain workers. The bonus of $200 per week will be made available for people who work a minimum of 30 hours per week for at least five weeks between April 12 and July 12.
Another $65,000 will be provided to market and advertise jobs including picking, packing, sorting and logistics.
"The size of the seasonal and overseas workforce in the Territory is down by about 73 per cent," NT Agribusiness and Aquaculture Minister Nicole Manison said.
Overseas workers arrive in South Australia
The first of about 1200 seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands have arrived at a new South Australian regional quarantine centre at Paringa in the Riverland.
The special facility is part of a $7 million program being jointly funded by the SA Government and the agricultural industry which will provide $2500 per worker for the two weeks of quarantine.
The first intake of 200 Tongans have arrived and will be followed by another batch in about a fortnight.
Citrus SA has repeated its calls for a quarantine-free travel bubble between Australia and the Pacific Islands to assure an affordable harvest workforce in the long term.
The NSW government will subsidise half the cost of quarantine ($1500) for overseas farm workers as critical labour shortages hit the state's cotton harvest, winter grain planting, fruit picking and abattoirs.
Tasmania is fully subsidising the cost of quarantine for overseas farm workers while Victoria is using the same facility with costs shared between its state government and the industry.
The first Pacific Islands workers processed through Tasmania have arrived in Victoria's Sunraysia to pick fruit and vegetables,
Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh said the deal with Tasmania to quarantine 1500 seasonal workers had been done too late and produce had gone to waste.
The National Farmers Federation has proposed dedicated agriculture visas (up to 12 months for unskilled workers) to provide a long-term solution to agriculture's acute labor problems.
Applications for the visas would be streamlined and once approved would allow overseas workers to work when and where they wanted and would also provide them with protection from unscrupulous employers through an organising body.
The NFF said studies had shown 60pc of fruit and vegetable growers were having trouble recruiting staff which meant crops were being left to rot.
Similar problems ion the dairy industry were causing losses of up to $364 million a year.
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