OriginsInsight Edition 8

The Migrant Contribution to Australia’s Rural Economy

The recent refusal of the federal government to subsidise SPC Ardmona in Greater Shepparton, and the subsequent bailout by the Victorian government, poses an interesting question – what would be the impact on Australia’s immigrant population if regional food production and processing were to diminish?

Australia’s migrant population has played a leading role in food production stretching back to the 19th century. In the past, migrants to regional Australia came from China, Italy, Greece, the Balkans and India to work as agricultural labourers, orchardists and market gardeners. In towns and cities many others operated small businesses such as greengrocers, delicatessens, milk bars, cafes and restaurants.

Indeed these traditions and work preferences continue today. This goes some way to explain why recent Origins research into ASX200 board members and executives (read the research) shows an under-representation of people with a Greek and Italian background – simply, they seem to prefer, and find success in, family and small businesses.

As is the case with SPC Ardmona, many migrants involved in agricultural production and processing chose to settle in Australia’s regional towns. In fact, the food industry – estimated in 2010-2011 to have an export value of A$27.1 billion – employs almost 1.7 million people or 15 per cent of Australia’s workforce.1

Mapping from the Origins database, based on analysis of names, reveals the extent of the diversity of residents in selected regional areas. The following maps of selected regional centres show the proportion of population in Mesh Block areas belonging to minority groups (non-Anglo/NW European).

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Similarly, the following maps show the proportion of the population in Mesh Block areas with names of Italian origin.

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The food industry is dependent upon migrant labour – whether in the form of permanent migrants, their second and third generation offspring, or through temporary visitors such as backpackers and international students. Food producers share a common challenge in securing the right labour at the right time and agree that food production could be increased without untimely labour shortages.

And it’s not just the food industry that is dependent upon migrants and migrant workers. The Australian Wine Industry is the fourth largest exporter of wine around the world, producing export earnings worth $5.5 billion a year.2 Many people in the wine industry have migrant backgrounds. Australia’s largest family-owned winery is Casella Wines started by Filippo and Maria Casella who arrived in Australia in 1957. Read their story here 

In Victoria, SPC-Ardmona believes that production is lower than it could be because ‘fruit has been left on the trees because there aren’t enough people to pick it’.3 Similarly, a leading Australian fruit exporter says, “the lack of a reliable supply of seasonal labour significantly inhibits industry growth in the Murray Valley irrigation region and limits export income.”4

Growcom (The Queensland Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association) estimates that members lose up to 10% of their crops due to labour shortages.

In rural centres such as Moree, a cotton and wheat region, more than a third of the farm and harvest labour is provided by young foreign workers, largely from Europe.

National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie says that foreign workers provide great assistance to local farmers: “A lot of Australians don’t want to move into remote areas like Moree … we know many of these young people from overseas have got experience in farming … can step straight into these jobs – and most of all, want to work here.”5

Seasonal workers make an important contribution to the local economy of regional towns where they spend their earnings on food, entertainment, telecommunications and other products and services.

It’s no surprise the SPC-Ardmona bailout provoked heated debate.  Tension between a multinational investor, federal government and the entire agricultural sector caused great uncertainty for employees and businesses across the region.  At least for the time being, the Victorian government’s contribution and Greater Shepparton’s commitment will secure the future and remove the immediate threat of social and economic disruption to this vibrant multicultural community.

Look out for our next newsletter which will provide a look at the link between migrants and food in our major cities.

1 Australian Food Statistics 2010-2011
3 Mares, Peter, Seasonal migrant labour: a boon for Australian country towns?’,  2nd Future of Australia’s Country Towns Conference, Bendigo, 11-13 July 2005
4 Mares, Peter, Seasonal migrant labour: a boon for Australian country towns?’,  2nd Future of Australia’s Country Towns Conference, Bendigo, 11-13 July 2005
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