Young workers head to rural NSW and Queensland to help with harvest season amid labor shortages

It’s mid-November, grain trucks are humming down the highways and header combs are turning in the paddocks, cutting through wheat, barley and chickpeas.

Harvest has started along the NSW/Queensland border, and it’s all hands on deck.

As the labor shortage bears down on farmers, an unlikely crew of helpers have stepped up to ensure the crop comes off.

A young woman with shoulder-length, wavy blonde hair wears a pint work shirt and an Akubra hat
Avalon Newman swapped tank tops for work shirts when she moved from Coffs Harbor to Northern NSW to help with harvest.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

People such as Avalon Newman, who has swapped her surfboard for a tractor towing a chaser bin full of grain near Moree.

“I spent my whole life at Coffs Harbour. I would surf every day and walk around wearing bikinis and tank tops,” she said.

“Now I wear work shirts and boy clothes.”

Moving way out west

While scrolling TikTok, videos of the grain harvest popped into her feed, something she had never seen before.

“I was like, ‘that looks amazing, I want to be there, I want to do that’,” Ms Newman said.

Before long, she was reaching out to Seasonal Work Australia, an Instagram account run by “just this young girl, trying to get people to come and help out west”.

“She said there was no resume needed, no experience needed, nothing,” Ms. Newman said.

wheat grows in a field, with blue sky above it.
Once a wheat crop ripens, farmers have a short amount of time to get it harvested.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

Two days later, she was packing her bags ready to move to the country.

The young woman behind the Seasonal Work Australia Instagram account is Heidi Morris, a Moree-based wedding photographer who puts down her camera each year to drive a 20-tonne header during harvest.

“The demand for workers out here is incredible,” Ms. Morris said.

“You’re not only looking for people to jump on these machines, you’re looking for people on the ground, you’re looking for people in town.

“[Harvest] has just become such a big thing.”

The decision to stay, long-term

Sophie Hemsley-Hackett was managing a Returned Servicemen’s Memorial (RSM) club in Casino on the NSW north coast when she decided to pack up and head inland to work on a farm in Moree.

It was meant to be a short-term job, but a year later she was still there in what turned into a full-time career on the land.

“With all the young people in town that I started to get to know, especially all the young women around the area that I started to really look up to, I just realized I wanted to stay,” she said.

A young woman in a blue shirt and a dark blue ap sits in the driver's seat of a white ute
Sophie Hemsley-Hackett has turned seasonal work into a long-term career in the bush.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

Downing tools for tractors

For the locals, the people who stay on or choose to come back year after year are worth their weight in gold.

People like Chris Turner, a Victorian carpenter who caught the bug after just one season and now runs his own contract harvesting business.

Each year he takes a break from the job site to drive his headers 1,500 kilometers north to Bungunya, in southern Queensland.

A man with a beard wearing a work shirt, long pants and boots sits at the wheel of a large harvester
Carpenter Chris Turner downs tools every year to head to Southern Queensland and help with harvest.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

At first, the transition from tools to tractors was a shock to the system.

“I was pretty green, I’ll be the first to admit that, especially on the mechanical side of things,” he said.

“And I’d never worked the hours like that.

“Some days you’re doing 10 to 12 hours, some you’re doing 16, 18 hours, so it took a little bit to adjust to that.”

‘We’ll train anyone’

For Gravesend farmer Mick Barwick “the eclectic group” of harvest help is a godsend.

“It’s a huge job, so it’s a really intense period of six to eight weeks,” he said.

For the farmers, the time and effort it takes to train newcomers adds to the workload, but Mr. Barwick says he would give anyone a go.

“It’s operating heavy machinery under a high-stress situation, but certain people are good at it,” he said.

harvesters in the distance of a field, as the sun rises
Headers harvest grain near Moree in northern NSW.(ABC Rural: Alys Marshall)

Making a life in the bush

When Avalon Newman returns home to Coffs Harbor she still enjoys paddling out for a surf, but her new rural life in Moree is still with her.

“Some people might think it’s a bit challenging, but I think it’s great. They teach you a lot and respect you out here,” she said.

“Maybe back in the day they might have thought girls can’t do that, but now everyone is so encouraging and welcoming, you can do anything.

“Girls might even do it better, who knows.”

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