Hundreds of hectares of tall leafy trees in Western Australia’s largest banana plantation have given way to bright cotton fields. Severe labor shortages have made fiber more economically viable than fruit.

The Dobson family harvested their first cotton crop in 27 years of farming last year after clearing more than a third of their Ord Valley banana plantations.

With the 120-hectare plantation typically requiring 40 staff to harvest bananas last season to five, Lachlan-Dobson said his family had no choice but to cut back on their banana crop. .

That meant clearing 50 hectares of trees and finding profitable alternatives.

“If we had left it on, it would have created some pretty serious biosecurity concerns for the rest of the plantation, so it needed to be removed,” he said.

“We sat down and did the analysis to see what non-labor-intensive crops would yield the highest returns, and cotton won that pretty easily.

“The income from bananas is more than ten times the income from cotton, but without labor, banana production would not have progressed.”

The transition was difficult as it required land clearing, new irrigation infrastructure and contractors to plant and harvest fibrous crops.

But Dobson said the investment has paid off and the demand for labor in real estate is now much lower.

“You can manage your cotton by hopping on your bike and driving for about 20 minutes each morning just to make sure your irrigation system is working and everything is going. is,” he said.

“The benefit is that the 50 hectares we planted are actually profitable.”

The Dobsons plan to develop another 40 hectares and expand cotton cultivation to 90 hectares next season.

Longer term, Dobson hoped that the eventual return of workers to real estate would allow for a quick return to bananas.

“We have the ability to switch crops pretty quickly,” he said.

“Let’s just sit back and wait and see what happens to the labor market.”

look to technology

Crop changes are possible for some, but mango growers in northern Australia are turning to technology to manage staffing shortages.

A small ATV in a farm shed with computer equipment fixed in a tray behind it.
Machine vision rigs help mango growers predict crop size and harvest time.(Courtesy: Professor Kelly Walsh)

A new “machine vision rig” scans an orchard mounted on a moving vehicle, using light detection and ranging, machine vision, and a time-of-flight camera to estimate crops from flowering time. increase.

This means that growers can more accurately predict yields and the number of staff required to pick the fruit.

Martina Matzner, a researcher and former mango farmer at the University of Central Queensland, said: “If you know how much you need to harvest at a particular time of year, you can figure out how many staff you need at that time of year. You can really tweak it.

“We are somehow competing for these resources, so if we could better coordinate our forecasts and if everyone knew what crops we could harvest at any given time, instead of competing, we would actually have these resources. We can share resources.”

Matzner said the labor crisis has sparked interest in WA’s technology.

The future of robots?

The University of Central Queensland is considering taking this technology one step further and developing a robotic mango picker to reduce the industry’s reliance on seasonal workers.

A yellow mango in the grip of a small robotic hand
A major factor behind the development of the robotic mango picker was the lack of staff.(Courtesy: Professor Kelly Walsh)

This technology uses the same camera technology as machine vision rigs, combined with 12 mechanical arms to pick mangoes from trees at the same time.

Professor Kelly Walsh said a large field trial will take place next month at Katherine to assess the machine’s effectiveness.

“It’s our goal to be able to move quickly through the tree,” he said.

“Then we will consider making it a commercial partner to incorporate it into harvest assistance in the next step.”

Walsh said a “main factor” behind the technology’s development was a staff shortage.

“It’s a tough job. You’re not going to attract people to the job easily with 40-degree heat and acidic sap in midsummer,” he said.

“It’s amazing [manual picking] It lasted so long. ”


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