BLUEBERRY PIONEER: Ridley Bell of Mountain Blue Farms at his family’s new enterprise by the banks of the upper Clarence near Tabulam.
BLUEBERRY PIONEER: Ridley Bell of Mountain Blue Farms at his family’s new enterprise by the banks of the upper Clarence near Tabulam.

Backpacker labour shortage hasn’t hit Northern Rivers farms

BACKPACKERS are still flocking to the Northern Rivers despite 34,000 fewer visas being approved last year, which has seen a critical labour shortage in some regional NSW agriculture industries.

The number of workers coming to Australia under the 417 visa has dropped repeatedly over the past two years, with over 34,000 fewer visas being granted in 2014-15 than in 2012-13.

This included a nearly 60% decline in workers from Ireland and a 26% decline in workers from Taiwan and South Korea, according to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

The decline has been blamed on stricter 417 visa laws, including changes which prevent Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOFers) from obtaining a 417 visa for an additional year, unless they do paid work for 88 days in regional areas.

AUSVEG chief executive Richard Mulcahy said the vegetable industry faced a critical shortage of labour due the decline in backpacker numbers.

But Mountain Blue Orchards owner Ridley Bell said the Northern Rivers was still a must-see region for backpackers and he had seen no decline in numbers over the past two years.

Mr Bell said in 2015 they had almost 4000 online enquiries for work on their two blueberry farms and he employed almost 400 backpackers on his 160ha farm near Tabulam.

“Backpackers who had been working five or six days a week will head to the coast on their days off, even though they are staying out at Tabulam,” he said.

“For an area like Griffith or an area like Orange, which are so far from the coast, it would be really interesting if farmers are saying the same thing, which I hear they’re not.”

Coopers Shoot Tomatoes owner Heather Armstrong echoed Mr Bells comments.

“We haven’t found any impact at all,” she said.

“Byron Bay has always been for our backpackers somewhere they had wanted to go and it seems to be a destination for all backpackers because its such a beautiful region.”



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