Protected Cropping Australia Conference 2022

How to get the most out of a horticulture workforce in challenging labor times

With labor challenges impacting Australian horticulture, a leading glasshouse vegetable producer says a key to optimising and getting the most out of the workforce is providing an environment that is just as much about fun as serious work.

Nicky Mann, WHS & Labor Manager from Family Fresh Farms on the NSW Central Coast told the Protected Cropping Australia Conference 2022 in Coffs Harbour that labor management in protected cropping is different from other sectors. That is because it is high-speed, plants grow really fast, there are increased plant densities, it can be more humid and there is less downtime due to elements such as the weather. This means that there can be higher productivity, but also more pressure on the workforce.

Photo: Nicky Mann from Family Fresh Farms  

Among the company's workforce are more than 80 workers from Vanuatu, who spend between six months to two and a half years living on-site at the farm, so Ms Mann says it is just as much about making them feel at home. In addition, she added that workers are like capital, and need to be prioritised and treated like an investment rather than a cost, with ongoing care for their wide-ranging needs and safety, regardless of their position.

"It's all about fun and comradeship," she said. "So, please ensure that you have fun at work; most of us spend a third of our lives at work, some even more, so it's important that you love it. If you can go to work laughing and happy it makes a huge difference to morale. But we do take it seriously and are proud to say we have some of the hardest workers in the country. We not only celebrate them but they get paid piece rate for all their hard work. They make great money and deserve every cent of it. They have become experts. I love them so dearly, no matter how many mistakes they make, we just always look for the best in them. When you do that you maximise your output and capacity."

Photo: Tony Bundock, leading the session on 'People & Skills'

Professionally, workers also need to be given the appropriate tools and training to perform their jobs, and Ms Mann advises allowing workers to teach each other, as that gives them greater responsibility and accountability. As well as supporting them through extra courses, for example, specific machinery licenses and first aid certificates help equip them for whatever the job may throw at them.

"As far as performance, we measure everything," Ms Mann told delegates. "It's on the screen for them to see, at different times of the day. It shows the average line, who is the top performer, who is the low performer. We also notice that sometimes people have high speed but their quality isn't as good. We do acknowledge them and give them compensation for the area they are better at. Each week we do rankings for everyone on the farm on how they have done; we reward people at the top and reward people who have the most improvement."

In addition to the People & Skills presentations, Wednesday featured breakout sessions on IPDM, New Research in Protected Cropping, Rootzone/Substrates, The Berry Sector and Innovation and New Technology.

There were also keynote speakers including Godfried Dol, who spoke about the AI and how long it will be before it takes over from growers, while Andrew Robson and Craig Shephard told delegates about the project underway to map all protected cropping properties in Australia.

Photo: Graham Adams, Vinicius Saraiva and Bahram Fayaz from HM.CLAUSE Pacific 

The exhibition and trade show wrapped up, with more than 60 companies in attendance. One of those was HM.CLAUSE, which specializes in the breeding, production, and sales of high-quality vegetable seeds.

The conference wrapped up on Wednesday evening, with around 450 delegates attending across the three days.

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