Closed borders have brought to the fore a long-term issue of labour shortages in the agriculture sector.
Livestock SA and SA Dairyfarmers' Association chief executive officer Andrew Curtis said the recent pandemic and borders closures had accentuated an already existing problem finding adequate staff in SA's agriculture.
"What was a chronic problem has become acute," he said.
"We've been fortunate in the past decades that a lot of backpackers sought to participate in farm labour. But backpackers don't exist anymore and they're not likely to for another year or two.
"The buffers have allowed us to stumble on and get the job done without particularly addressing the key issue."
Data from the Regional Australia Institute showed there were record job vacancies advertised in regional Australia in March, including in regional SA, where jobs were up 72.5pc on the same time the previous year.
While professional jobs, particularly those in medical fields, were highest in demand, the "farm, forestry and garden" also had high numbers of availability, particularly on the Fleurieu Peninsula and Murray Mallee region, which also includes the South East.
Mr Curtis said this shortage has had a significant impact on a number of sectors, including livestock, cropping, processing and even transport, across a wide geographical region.
We're saying, open the borders as soon as possible, particularly as vaccination programs are completed, so we access the labour that is required.
He said pastoral areas were particularly dependent on backpacker and gap year labour and while drought had meant some businesses had destocked, as some areas had rain and began to look at restocking, they would also need more staff.
Intensive animal businesses, such as dairy, were also feeling the pinch from reduced labour availability.
"Dairy is a 24/7 operation and it needs people, but it also needs people with an affinity with large animals," he said.
He said there had been hope that the end to JobSeeker and JobKeeper programs in March would have more people looking for work "but they're not".
Mr Curtis said there was work being done to try and solve the problem long-term.
Out of the SA Dairy Action Plan, the industry had established a Workforce Committee to address the labour and skill shortage throughout the chain, with a goal to work alongside training providers and put pathways in place.
The Primary Producers SA policy council had also met to look at potential training and ideas, such as how to train for agriculture when it does not fit into a traditional apprenticeship.
"The long-term critical needs are in people with some skills," he said.
But he said short-term solutions were tricky.
While Pacific Island programs worked for horticulture, they were not necessarily a good option as many of the workers did not have experience with sheep or dairy
"Having New Zealand open up is good for shearers," he said. "But one size doesn't necessarily fit all."
Robotics considered to lessen burden
Mount Compass, SA, dairy farmer Nick Brokenshire said there were a lot of reasons why dairy had problems attracting staff, but he still believed there was potential for a great job in the industry.
"It is definitely hard to get people to get up early in the morning to milk cows," he said.
"When you're working with animals, it's very important to find people who like working with animals."
But he says most dairy farmers worked hard to make sure the farm is an "enjoyable place to work" for their staff, including paying above the award wages.
With staff so difficult to find, he said there was increasing interest in robotic dairies, even on the Fleurieu Peninsula, because of the "headache" in finding staff.
"We're generally looking at ways to be more efficient to reduce labour needs," Mr Brokenshire said.
Robotics were a big investment for a business and were not necessarily a fast pay-off, he said, do there was a handbrake in the adoption of them.
But he said the alternative was more pressure and even longer hours on farming families, which came with its own mental health stresses.
- with MARK PHELPS
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