Mid West grain growers cast a wide net to fill jobs for bumper 2021 harvest

Michael RobertsMidwest Times
Farmhands Darleen Eschweiler, from Belgium, and Jolina Latusek, from Germany, with Mullewa farmer Tarleah Thomas.
Camera IconFarmhands Darleen Eschweiler, from Belgium, and Jolina Latusek, from Germany, with Mullewa farmer Tarleah Thomas. Credit: Michael Roberts

Mid West farmers have had to search every corner of WA to find enough workers for this year’s harvest, with inexperienced hands and grey nomads filling the void.

In the face of strict border rules and failed deals to source overseas labour, grain farmers have been forced to think outside the box to make sure they are able to deliver a bumper crop.

The State Government has used various incentives and marketing campaigns to try to fill the agricultural labour gap, but came under fire from the State Opposition for failing in its plan to bring hundreds of skilled agriculture workers from Europe ahead of the 2021-22 harvest.

Since December, more than 1750 Pacific Islanders have been flown into WA under the Seasonal Worker Program and Pacific Labour Scheme.

Just outside Mullewa, it’s all hands on deck for Andrew and Tarleah Thomas, with the grain farmers struggling to find a workforce this year.

For the first time they hired two European backpackers without any experience in agriculture.

Jolina Latusek.
Camera IconJolina Latusek. Credit: Michael Roberts/Geraldton Guardian

Mr Thomas said despite Darleen Eschweiler and Jolina Latusek being new to the industry, being faced with the shortage of labour made him willing to take them on and train them.

“They completed seeding with us and now they are doing their first harvests,” Mr Thomas said.

“Female operators are some of the best I find — they’ve got the right attitude and they are really willing to learn.”

Ms Latusek, a German backpacker who now drives a grain header on the Thomas’ farm, said working the harvest was one of the best jobs she has ever had.

“I can’t imagine going back to an office job,” she said. “I really enjoy the farm life, every day is different. You learn so much every day.”

Her Belgium workmate Ms Eschweiler said she loved the challenge of driving big machines.

“It has been great to do the seeding and then see the whole process through to harvest and get the final product,” she said.

“It’s so great in Australia how you can have a peak into every business. I’m trying a few things out but I’m totally in love with farm work.”

Darleen Eschweiler.
Camera IconDarleen Eschweiler. Credit: Michael Roberts/Geraldton Guardian

The Thomas family has also enlisted the services of two “grey nomads’ in their 70s from New South Wales who became stuck in WA when the borders closed.

“It’s nice to have an older generation too,” Ms Thomas said.

“When we’re 70 I hope someone would give us a chance to work.”

In a traditionally male-dominated industry, Ms Thomas said she was proud to boast a strong proportion of female workers.

“In today’s world, farmers are now keen to get the girls on board,” she said. “They can do just as good a job as the boys, hands down.

“If I can do it, anyone can ...if they are willing to learn. It’s a great career.”

Maggie and Jennifer Critch on their Tenindewa farm.
Camera IconMaggie and Jennifer Critch on their Tenindewa farm. Credit: Michael Roberts/Geraldton Guardian

About 20km down the road at Tenindewa, the Critch family has also had to cast their net wide to source enough labour in time for harvest.

Jennifer Critch, who runs their farming business alongside husband Tim, said they hired a former Singapore Airlines pilot who found himself out of a job when the pandemic hit.

“We’ve been lucky,” she said. “We were quite worried we wouldn’t find the right people.”

She said finding enough quality accommodation to attract good workers was tricky.

“We are looking at building some dongas for next season,” she said.

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