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  • Aussie Orchards managing director Colin Foyster (front, left), with a group of Australian and Papua New Guinean workers and the fire truck they used when fires came close to the farm. Photo: Colin Foyster
PNG workers helped protect this NSW farm during bushfire crisis

A group of Papua New Guinean (PNG) workers employed at Aussie Orchards in northern NSW have not only helped the farm address its ongoing labour problems, they also stepped up to protect the farm during the bushfire crisis in late 2019.

When fires came close to the Aussie Orchards property at Mooball in northern NSW late last year, the men worked alongside other staff to keep the farmhouse and surrounding buildings, farming equipment, and around 7,000 avocado trees safe.

“I have never been so proud,” Aussie Orchards managing director Colin Foyster told ABC North Coast.

“I recruited them directly when I hiked the Kokoda trail … they stood here shoulder-to-shoulder with us and fought this fire. It’s just amazing the hours they put in … all night, all day, at a hectic pace,” he said.

Supplying avocados and macadamias year-round

Family-owned Aussie Orchards produces avocado and macadamia crops in Mutchilba in north Queensland, and at Mooball in northern NSW.

Its two properties are more than 2,000 kilometres apart, with different climates and growing seasons, which means the business can supply its markets virtually year-round.

While the output of fruit and nuts from Aussie Orchards is steady, finding a reliable supply of workers to help out on its farms during harvest season has been a challenge.

Aussie Orchards employs more than 20 permanent staff, and each year hires around 50 extra short-term workers during picking season.

After experiencing difficulty finding enough local labour, Colin said he started to recruit PNG workers through Australia's Pacific labour mobility program. 

Colin has a close connection to PNG, as his grandfather was based in Port Moresby with the Australian army during World War II.

During a 2018 visit there to hike the Kokoda Track, Colin observed the strength and resilience of the local porters on his trek and offered 4 of them jobs on his NSW property.

‘They won’t come and go at a moment’s notice’

Colin said recruiting these workers has provided more workforce consistency for his business.

“We could get by with backpackers, but the SWP (Seasonal Worker Programme) fits the bill better because we have them for the whole season – they won’t come and go at a moment’s notice,” he said.

According to Colin, while the workers were initially brought over for picking work, they soon took on more complex tasks.

“They flowed from the harvest into pruning, and then some irrigation repair and installation work.

“They then moved to another farm where they helped prepare the land for planting.

“We showed them how to plant trees, how to protect and mulch them, and how to install irrigation. In a week, they created a new orchard,” Colin said.

Looking to fill longer-term roles

Colin said planned to bring more seasonal workers to Australia from PNG and was also looking to fill longer-term, more highly skilled positions with Pacific island workers.

He said sourcing more experienced staff would benefit both Aussie Orchards and the new workers they employ.

“They will get increased skills, while we will benefit from their labour, and we will be prepared to put effort into training them because we know they will be here for up to 3 years.

“It’s security of employment!”