Water, Labor Boost Australia Crop

Ernie NeffInternational

Increased water availability and the expectation of more harvest labor, along with increased planting area, are reasons for the citrus crop forecast increase in Australia, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).

FAS recently reported that the total planted area of navel and Valencia oranges in Australia has increased by 14% from 15,307 hectares (ha) in 2014 to 17,469 ha in 2020. During this period, the area of Valencia oranges has declined by 3% while the area of navel oranges has increased by 27%.

The availability of irrigation water, which in turn influences the price of traded water, is important to growers. After two years of above-average rainfalls in the eastern states, irrigation water storage dams are at or near capacity. In the current circumstance, it is expected that irrigation of citrus trees will be optimized by growers and will not be a limiting factor to production.

Additionally, the Bureau of Meteorology has forecast the likelihood of average rainfall in January to March 2022. This coincides with the mid growing period of fresh orange production areas. This is expected to reduce the likelihood of oversized oranges being produced, as occurred in 2020-21. The expectation of typical fruit size will increase the quantity of fresh oranges that meet the size range suitable for export markets compared to the previous year.

Regarding labor, Australia commenced opening up its international borders on Dec. 15, 2021. This includes double-COVID-19-vaccinated, working-holiday visa holders being allowed to enter Australia without the previous mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine period. The decline in working-holiday visa holders in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the largest influence on the shortfall in harvest labor. The border opening is anticipated to have a positive impact on the working-holiday visa holder numbers in Australia in the coming months and contribute to alleviating the current shortfall in available harvest labor, including for the citrus industry. The citrus harvest is expected to begin in May 2022.

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that for horticultural tree (fruits and nuts) farms, around 70% of labor requirements are met by family, permanent and contracted Australian citizens. The balance is mainly for harvest labor which is typically made up of temporary visa holders from the Pacific Islands associated with a Pacific Seasonal Worker Program and working holiday makers, typically overseas backpackers. Many of these groups had exited Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is currently a much-reduced pool of labor available for harvest. The amount of labor in the horticultural tree sector fell by almost 8% in 2020-21 compared to the prior year.

See the full FAS report on Australia’s citrus outlook.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service

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