Advances in technology could help support farms struggling to secure a strong workforce according to Bowen Gumlu Growers Association president. Picture: FILE
Advances in technology could help support farms struggling to secure a strong workforce according to Bowen Gumlu Growers Association president. Picture: FILE

Key to strong farming future lies in less human pickers

DRONES, cameras and sensors could hold the key to addressing shortages in the Bowen picking workforce in a move that would save time, money and waste.

Farmers across the state have struggled to bolster the number of workers on their farms with international borders closed.

The sector typically employs backpackers and people on working holiday visas, however a freeze in travel has meant owners have to look elsewhere for workers.

Several schemes and ideas have been floated in a bid to draw people from different industries including HECS debt reduction, programs targeting school leavers and even a scheme for troubled youth.

However, Bowen Gumlu Growers Association president Carl Walker said while some of these plans may work in the short term, technology would be the key to longer term resilience in the industry.

Bowen Gumlu Growers Association president Carl Walker said technology could be the answer to workforce shortages in the horticultural industry. Picture: FILE
Bowen Gumlu Growers Association president Carl Walker said technology could be the answer to workforce shortages in the horticultural industry. Picture: FILE

Mapping fields using drones, automated technology that sprays pesticides and sensors to sort fruit were among the technology that could reduce working hours and increase accuracy and productivity in the picking sector.

"Where we're struggling with getting the people to do these kinds of jobs, not anymore," he said.

"That person who doesn't like doing that job and doesn't want to do it, well now we've got this drone that can do it all for us."

Mr Walker said rather than transporting crops from the field to sheds for sorting, cameras could be used to sort produce depending on demand, and unwanted crop could then be left in the field.

"Instead of paying someone to take it to the shed and then sort it and then throw it away, it's all done in the paddock," he said.

Japanese backpacker Aki Funada, 31 of Hiroshima, fruit picking tomatoes. Several farm owners across the state have reported issues in employing pickers as a result of border closures. Photographer: Liam Kidston.
Japanese backpacker Aki Funada, 31 of Hiroshima, fruit picking tomatoes. Several farm owners across the state have reported issues in employing pickers as a result of border closures. Photographer: Liam Kidston.

"That would cut out quite a few man hours required to do it and quite a lot of cost."

Mr Walker said the same principle would apply to picking melons where technology would be used to determine whether the fruit was hollow and therefore not fit for sale.

"All this technology is out there that takes the human influence out of it," he said.

"Because as human beings, we're not perfect by any means."

However, for these projects to become a reality, Mr Walker said the region needed to rejuvenate research stations across Bowen.

Establishing agricultural hubs was listed in the Whitsunday Recovery Taskforce's priorities for 2020.

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The task force floated a $1 million investment to support co-ordination, research and implementation of agricultural technologies as a way to "transform the outdated Bowen research facility into a hub for agricultural innovation and research, agribusiness training and technology adoption".

Mr Walker said by bringing research to Bowen, technology could be trailed at a lower level before being rolled out to other farms, therefore saving growers money.

"It allows the industry to look at things as a group," Mr Walker said.

"All that technology, it's all out there."


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