Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Time running out for ag contractors as spring approaches

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October is looming as a crunch-month for agricultural contractors and dairy farmers as the scramble continues to find staff to drive machinery to plant summer feed crops and cut grass cut for silage.
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Waikato Federated Farmers vice-president Ben Moore said there was huge concern that contractors would not have enough staff on the ground to meet demand from dairy farmers as border restrictions continue to prevent overseas farm machinery operators from entering the country to work this spring and summer.

The region was still recovering from last summer’s drought with feed reserves on many farms already low. 

Moore feared there could be a potential disaster if farmers are unable to get their summer supplementary feed supply organised and there was another very dry summer.

Te Awamutu agricultural contractor John Austin said he had enough drivers for all of his major machines and was filling spots with people who were available. He also planned to intensively train new staff.

However, he remained concerned whether these staff would be able to handle the job and be able to do it safely.

“We might be lucky and get ex-farmers’ sons that have gone off and done something and have come back but there is going to be a major shortage in the agricultural contracting industry that is looming,” he said.

He stressed that the last thing he wanted was to panic farmers and said the industry was working really hard to find people to work their machines and train people up.

But the reality was the industry will not have enough skilled people to fill every vacancy.

If contractors were to have any hope of getting foreign workers into New Zealand then the Government needed to act now.

“October is when it’s going to hit the fan,” Austin said.

If the Government is serious about turning the economy around, it had to start thinking about the next six months to make sure its agricultural sector was successful, he said.

Austin recently hosted National Party leader Judith Collins and MPs David Bennett and Barbara Kuriger at his place of business, along with close to 200 people.

Both MPs pointed the finger at Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, saying he has had four months to plan for worker shortages in the contracting industry, describing the response so far as “token approaches.”

“Look at the gear you’re dealing with. This stuff takes months of training and they’ve had that – they have had the warning,” Bennett said.

“I think the Minister (Damien O’Connor) has to take responsibility for not providing the people that this industry needs going forward.”

Collins said the contracting industry needed qualified experienced people to operate these machines.

“The minister of agriculture has known about this issue and has not (done) a scrap (of work) in four months,” she said.

When pressed on whether machinery operators should be allowed to enter the country and work, Collins said: “He should have done his job and this needs to be considered an essential skill, but they also need to have to go through quarantine.”

Collins said she had zero tolerance for covid-19 in NZ and she expressed doubt in the confidence of the country’s quarantine system.

“The fact that the Government is out talking about masks and level 2 lockdowns tells me they are either trying to scare people before an election… or they know something about the ability of their quarantine system,” she said.

A Rural Contractors NZ June survey found that around 700 agricultural machinery operators will be needed this season.

The group had been urging rural contractors to turn over every stone to find suitable NZ candidates, Rural Contractors NZ chief executive Roger Parton said.

“Our members have responded magnificently. We’ve managed to find 300 people who either have the capacity to operate complex machinery or sufficient existing skills to upgrade,” he said.

“We are now down to needing around 400 imports to work alongside the 4000 New Zealanders our members employ.”

That number includes more than 500 recruited in the last year. More are still being employed as they come off various training initiatives that have been set up.

Parton said they were continuing to ask the minister to classify farm machinery operators  as skilled workers who are able to come into NZ from overseas.

There will be major impacts for farming output as well as for contractors if these operators cannot be found.

“We can only keep pressing the point that without some skilled operators being allowed in, machinery will sit idle and farm production and the national economy will be impacted,” Parton said.

Despite all the efforts to recruit and train New Zealanders, RCNZ estimates rural contractors still need to find nearly 400 skilled machinery operators.

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