A NEW Department of Regional NSW program may help combat the state's ongoing labour shortage by unlocking a 4500-strong workforce.
The state government-run department, which offers public assistance services like Local Land Services (LLS), will offer employees five days of special leave, known as "Harvest Leave" to assist producers in the expected bumper harvest.
It is a first for the state, which has had its workforce severely limited due to COVID-19 enforced travel restrictions, all while bracing for possibly one of the best cropping seasons in decades.
NSW Agriculture Minister and Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall said the move was proof "desperate times call for desperate measures".
"There is no silver bullet to solve the COVID-exacerbated workforce shortage, but this is another step we are implementing to support industry," Mr Marshall said.
"This will be a record season and Harvest Leave provides another positive incentive to ensure this year's crops are harvested, with the flow of economic gains being delivered to local communities and the people of NSW.
"I encourage all eligible staff to take advantage of this initiative, get some fresh country air in the lungs and help alleviate some of the pressures facing farmers during harvest."
NSW Farmers president James Jackson said the measure was innovative and could prove very beneficial.
"This announcement is most certainly welcome because any help would be fantastic because as Minister Marshall said, desperate times call for desperate measures," Mr Jackson said.
"As well as being a benefit to producers, this program may also be a great opportunity for the department's staff to get some hands-on experience.
"We've been highlighting the dire need to improve access to harvest workers for weeks now, and this will certainly help, but cherry growers, for example, need workers for five weeks, not one.
"There is a shortfall of at least 10,000 harvest workers this season, and that's because of the COVID restrictions we've had in place."
Mr Jackson said he was hopeful the government would continue to pursue other assistance measures.
"However, while this assistance is welcome, I encourage the Minister to look at doubling his efforts to establish on-farm quarantine arrangements and to discuss with his federal counterpart to possibly speed the process along," he said.
"Now that vaccination rates are rapidly rising and we have access to rapid antigen testing, the government needs to vastly improve harvest worker mobility if we are to have any hope of avoiding waste and lost income.
"I'm hopeful the government will also consider measures like the on-farm quarantine pilot we proposed, sooner than later."
New Deputy Premier and Minister for Regional NSW Paul Toole said the special leave would play a vital role in delivering the expected bumper harvest.
"Agriculture and farming play a pivotal role in our economy, so providing harvest leave to staff to provide an extra set of hands in the field helps get produce to market and dollars into farmers' pockets," Mr Toole said.
"Nearly 80 per cent of staff from the Department of Regional NSW already live and work in regional NSW, so chances are most of them know their way around a header or a chaser bin and how important this busy time of year is for regional communities.
"We've had a tough run in the regions over the past few years with prolonged drought, and COVID-19, which has significantly impacted seasonal harvest worker availability, right at a time when we need all hands on deck to get crops off.
"These workers can volunteer to help out with any harvest, anywhere in the state - from harvesting blueberries in Coffs Harbour, oranges and table grapes in the Riverina and Murray, to cherries in the Central West or helping bring in a bumper grain harvest."
Department staff members can either find local contacts for the harvest work or via the Help Harvest NSW website.
There is no cost to farmers getting help from departmental volunteers, as staff will be paid at their standard leave rate by the Department.
Leave will be managed to ensure there will be no impact on services provided by the department.
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