Alternative crops and technologies are helping fruit growers in northern Australia adapt to labor shortages

Acres of tall leafy trees on Western Australia’s largest banana plantation have been replaced by bright fields of cotton, with a critical shortage of staff making fiber more economically viable than fruit.

For the first time in 27 years of farming, the Dobson family have picked a crop of cotton, after destroying more than a third of their banana plantation in the Ord Valley last year.

As the 40 employees typically needed to pick the bananas at the 120-hectare plantation dwindled to just five workers last season, Lachlan Dobson said the family had no choice but to reduce the size of their crop by bananas.

This involved clearing 50 hectares of trees and looking for a profitable replacement.

“If we had left it, it would have introduced some sort of pretty big biosecurity issue for the remaining plantation, so it needed to be removed,” he said.

“We sat down and did a kind of analysis to try to figure out what low-intensity crop we could grow that would give us the best returns and cotton won it quite comfortably.

“The yields we’re going to get from bananas are more than 10 times what we’d get from cotton, but without any labor we couldn’t make progress with bananas.

The transition was difficult, with land clearing, new irrigation infrastructure and contractors needed to plant and harvest fibrous plants.

But Mr Dobson said the investment had paid off, with the property’s demand for labor now much lower.

“We can manage the cotton by jumping on a motorbike and driving around every morning for about 20 minutes just to make sure the irrigation system has worked and everything is running and that’s basically all the work you do” , did he declare.

“The benefit is going to be that we’re actually going to look back on those 50 hectares that we’ve planted.”

The Dobsons plan to clear an additional 40 hectares and expand their cotton plantations to 90 hectares next season.

In the long term, Mr. Dobson hoped that the eventual return of labor to the property would allow a quick return to bananas.

“We have the ability to change cultures quite quickly,” he said.

“We’ll just sit back and wait to see what the labor market looks like.”

Turn to technology

While crop changes are possible for some, mango growers in northern Australia are turning to technology to help manage staff shortages.

A small four-wheeled buggy in a farm shed with computer equipment strapped into the bed in the back.
The machine vision platform helps mango growers predict their crop size and harvest time.(Provided: Professor Kerry Walsh)

New “machine vision rigs” scan an orchard while attached to a moving vehicle, using light detection and ranging, machine vision and time-of-flight cameras to make harvest estimates from the time of flowering.

This means growers can better predict crop yields and the number of employees they will need to reap their rewards.

“If you know how much volume you need to harvest at any given time, you can really, really fine-tune the number of staff you need at that time,” said Martina Matzner, a researcher at Central Queensland University and former mango producer.

“We are all in some way in competition for these resources, so if we can better align our forecasts and we all know what crops we are producing at what particular time, well rather than competing, we can actually share these resources. “

Ms Matzner said there had been increased interest in WA’s technology following the labor crisis.

A robotic future?

Central Queensland University is planning to take the technology a step further and develop a mango picking robot to reduce the industry’s reliance on seasonal workers.

A yellow mango in the grip of a tiny robotic hand
Lack of personnel was the main driver for the development of the mango picking robot.(Provided: Professor Kerry Walsh)

The technology uses the same camera technology as the machine vision platform, combined with 12 mechanical arms to simultaneously pick mangoes from trees.

Professor Kerry Walsh said a major field trial was taking place in Katherine next month to assess the effectiveness of the machine.

“Getting it to move through the whole tree quickly, that’s where we’re at,” he said.

“Then we will look to bring it into a business partner to take it to the next stage and integrate it into a harvest aid.”

Mr Walsh said staff shortages were the “key driver” for the development of the technology.

“It’s hard work, you’re in the middle of summer with 40 degree heat with an acid sap, you’re not going to attract people to work easily,” he said.

“It is surprising [manual picking] lasted so long.”

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