Paul Burke, CEO NT Farmers Association
At the beginning of 2022, many thought that the disruptions of COVID would be well behind us for most of 2022, but for many the sting in the tail is still very real. Over the past 12 months I have continually said that work force issues are here to stay for a while. The tightening workforce has become critical in regional areas and has spread from Agriculture and Tourism to all parts of the economy. I think it is safe to say that in 2023, workforce will continue to be one of the largest issues still to be resolved.
With the current federal government taking the Agriculture visa off the table and reforming the PALM scheme, we have not experienced any major improvements in accessing workers. The Northern Territory Government have implemented worker attraction programs, although with every state doing the same it is still extremely difficult to attract staff. We are also now starting to see different industries competing for existing staff with many good employees leaving the industry for other sectors as we simply cannot compete with wages and conditions.
Backpacker numbers are slowly rising; the removal of the 88-day rule has impacted the number seeking agricultural work and those who are have not materialized in the Northern Territory in any great numbers. Complicating this further is the very strong visitor numbers in the Tourism industry. This is great news for the Territory but has had the impact of driving up accommodation rates at back hostels, further complicating the staff attraction campaigns.
NT Farmers have advocated loudly and often in relation to worker shortages and have had some successes, but much, much more will need to be done in 2023 if we are to make any positive impacts for our growers.
Business has certainly not been immune to the cost of living rises that all Australians have endured over the past 18 – 24 months. With inflation stubbornly high and likely to continue to rise and real wages relatively flat, more difficult times are ahead for industry. Key to these are our key inputs like: fertilizers, chemicals, fuel, diesel, and transport costs are significantly higher that the inflation rates and are putting real pressure on growers’ profit margins. Something we will need to monitor very closely in the early part of 2023.
Not all things have been bad; The Northern Territory Farmers Association annual production figures showed good growth on the 2019 figures and for the first time have exceed $500 million. We are well on track to meet the $Billion target by 2030. Whilst this ambitious amount seemed high a few years ago, the interest in development in the North has grown and will continue to do so.
Southern Growers are looking North for opportunity and property continues to sell
for strong prices. The Melon Industry in the North has had a purple patch and for the first time has eclipsed $80M, fast gaining on Mangoes. Our key commodity mangoes have been flat for several years but should see the new plantings coming online in the coming 12-24 months and with others looking to enter the sector we should see mangoes growing strongly.
Significant Citrus plantings, continued expansion of cotton, and other broadacre crops will see our farm gate value continue to rise. The completion of the Cotton Gin is close and with that we will see many new entrants into this sector and the cotton industry grow strongly over the coming period. Both the Federal and Territory Governments continue to support this expansion through Research and Development projects.
Biosecurity is an ever-present threat to our industry. Again, we have seen an outbreak of Banana Freckle and my deepest sympathies go out to our growers that have again been caught up in a major eradication program. I sincerely hope that our growers can get back on their feet as quickly as possible.
The Territory and Federal Governments have invested heavily into Biosecurity funding measures in 2022, being driven in no small part to the news that both Foot and Mouth Disease and Lumpy Skin Disease are on our doorstep in Asia. The plant industry has much experience and knowledge about pest and disease incursions and our advice would be “Do everything you can to keep it out.”
A timely reminder to revisit your current Biosecurity Plan and ensure it is strong, current and will do everything it can to protect your business. If you need a hand with preparing or updating your biosecurity plan, please reach out to NT Farmers and we can assist with this important part of your business.
A couple of the key highlights for 2022 were the Export Facility at the Darwin Airport starting to export both pumpkins and melons on scale throughout the year and then recently the ‘Mango Express’ flying out weekly to service key markets in Asia like Singapore, Dubai and Korea. A special acknowledgment to all the growers that made all the exports possible – thank you.
The Draft Surface Water Take policy is finally out and strikes a good balance of protecting environmental flows and aspirations of industry to grow and expand. This policy is currently out for comment and I urge all stakeholders to take the time to respond to this important regulatory piece of work.
Water will continue to be a decisive issue, but with strong leadership NT Farmers will continue to engage in an honest and transparent manner, speak in fact and support strong water legislation and policy. Our responsibility as an industry is to ensure that the environment is protected, that industry abides by the decisions of the umpire and always seeks to have a balanced and fair view of water planning.
The Northern Territory Government has long stated that water charging will be introduced for some industries over the coming years, we as an industry need to start to understand what this means and how it will be implemented. There is little point arguing that agriculture should be immune from water charging, the reality is that it is coming, and we need your ideas and support to ensure it does not have a major affect on our industry. Early 2023 (January) NT Farmers will be circulating a response to water charging debate and will be keen to hear your views.
To the staff of NT Farmers, thank you for your efforts and commitment shown throughout 2022. You are all wonderful and make my job enjoyable every day. To the Board of NT Farmers who give so much time freely to direct the ship – thank you.
To our many stakeholders – stay engaged, remember we are stronger together, and I look forward to seeing you all at Food Futures in May 2023.
Merry Christmas. Have a relaxing time over the holidays and make sure you look after yourselves. NT Farmers are proud to serve such an awesome group of farmers.
CEO NT Farmers Association