Bumper harvest clouded by border closure nightmare for northern NSW growers

The Eulenstein's sunflower crop is ready to harvest. Photo: supplied
The Eulenstein's sunflower crop is ready to harvest. Photo: supplied

Michelle and Phill Eulenstein should be getting excited as they prepare to harvest their sunflower crop, bringing their first income in three years following the drought.

Instead, they've been left scrambling to find experienced workers to help them get their crop off in time, now that their three usual casuals have been all but cut off from entering NSW amid the hard Queensland border closure.

"It's been really overwhelming and extremely draining," Mrs Eulenstein said.

The Eulensteins live along Foxes Lane in northern NSW, about 20 kilometres from Tulloona and halfway between Moree in NSW and Goondiwindi in Queensland.

However, all three of their casual staff members live on the other side of the border in Toowoomba, including Phill's dad who is semi-retired but still comes back to help on the farm.

While the workers would be able to drive across the border for the harvest this week, a Queensland government official told Mrs Eulenstein that to return to their home state, they would have to fly from Moree to Sydney and then to Brisbane where they would be required to do two weeks of hotel quarantine, all at their own expense.

"So basically they'd be working for nothing if they had to pay for all of that," Mrs Eulenstein said.

"So now we have a week to find three experienced staff members to get our sunflowers off in time.

"How do you find three experienced people just sitting around? We've been trying to look for a full-time staff member since Phil's dad moved on and we've been doing that for six weeks and haven't found anybody. How can you find three experienced staff in a week?"

Mrs Eulenstein spent three days on the phone trying to find out if they'd be eligible for some leniency, however was told exemptions would take two weeks to be approved.

"We didn't have that time to wait," she said, explaining that if it wasn't for the weekend's rain, the sunflower crop would be ready to be harvested now.

"It's really crucial that we hook in straight away, otherwise the quality starts to deteriorate the longer you leave it in the ground."

Reduced quality means a significant financial loss.

In the hope of finding workers at short notice, the Eulensteins have enlisted the help of a recruitment agency in Moree - at a cost of $1500 per staff member.

"It's a part-time job just trying to find people yourself, by the time you call people and interview them," Mrs Eulenstein said.

However, if that avenue is unsuccessful, the Eulensteins will be relying on the generosity of their neighbours and friends to help them get their crop off this week.

It's just baffling that agriculture is not considered essential and we're just about to go into this enormous harvest.

Michelle Eulenstein

The Eulensteins will also be using the recruitment agency to find four casual harvest workers to help with their winter crop harvest in the next few months, but that's another $6000 just in recruitment costs.

While they are relatively self-sufficient on farm, the Eulensteins do also rely on some agricultural businesses in Goondiwindi, which they now can't access.

"Our camera sprayer is from Goondiwindi and they can't get down," Mrs Eulenstein said.

"Both our spray rigs are maintained by companies in Goondiwindi. By pure chance my husband went to Dalby to get parts for the header just before the closure.

"This is the thing with agriculture, it's not just like having a car - it's hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment that you need to work.

"It's just baffling that agriculture is not considered essential and we're just about to go into this enormous harvest."

Mrs Eulenstein said they don't want pity, they just want the government to take into consideration the effect that the border closure is having on those in agriculture, particularly in the lead-up to the best harvest the region will have had in years.

"Food is essential and the industry that produces it therefore must be deemed an essential activity during a pandemic and be able to continue operations to put food on the table and clothes on people's backs," she said.

"Drought is inevitable; it's part of our risk assessment, we plan for it, get back on our feet and then plan for the next one.

"Phill's parents did a remarkable job preparing and getting us through the last three years of drought. Now we just need the chance to get back make use of the good times and plan for the next one.

"How are we meant to plan for this though? When the Queensland government told us in the days leading up to the border closing that it would be similar to last time, we were prepared, we had our staff organised, we were exempt and could move around as we needed to last time so this didn't pose any problems.

"But it wasn't the same at all, how were we meant to plan for that? Are we meant to have a back up team just in case? All farming activities are time-critical and essential and that should be reflected in a federal plan for pandemics."

Carla and Justin Dillon with their daughters Savannah and Madeline. The family are currently separated as Justin runs the family farm in North Star, while Carla and the girls remain at home in Goondiwindi. Photo: Hannah McNulty, Dalli Cottage Photography

Carla and Justin Dillon with their daughters Savannah and Madeline. The family are currently separated as Justin runs the family farm in North Star, while Carla and the girls remain at home in Goondiwindi. Photo: Hannah McNulty, Dalli Cottage Photography

Meanwhile, a Goondiwindi family has been split apart as a result of the cross-border restrictions, with Justin Dillon making the difficult decision to stay in North Star to run the family property, while his wife Carla and two daughters are stuck on the Queensland side of the border.

"My husband has had to make the choice to stay on our farm at North Star to feed our stock in the drought, or risk them dying or him being locked up by RSPCA for neglect," Mrs Dillon said.

"As a result he is not able to return to Goondiwindi to seek medical treatment for his 'Adult Stills Disease' which Dr Charles Mudimu and a team of immunology specialists saved him from four years ago, after 30 days in hospital and 18 months rehabilitation. He is being advised to go further into the COVID hotspot to seek his treatment, which could very well kill him.

"I cannot go to North Star to help Justin as I am required for work at the hospital from next Monday. Our family has been split. Surely some common sense must prevail soon?"

Mrs Dillon has asked local Southern Downs Labor candidate Joel Richters what he was doing to "pull [his] Labor Party into gear" in regards to adjusting the border bubble. She also posted on the Queensland Premier's Facebook page.

"You say you are protecting Queenslanders," she said in the post.

"You are not protecting ALL Queenslanders. There are Queenslanders who fall outside of your border bubble by mere kilometres. Their nearest health providers and life-saving services are in Goondiwindi and they are being denied access to their health care providers. You are sending these people, some with serious immune compromise, deeper into the coronavirus hotspots to receive their basic treatments. Where is the CARE for Queenslanders there?

"We are an isolated community forced to feed our stock through this drought, trying to maintain our employment which often requires us to cross the border, and now you have abandoned us again."

In response, Mr Richters said he had sent four emails to the Premier, ministers and Chief Health Officer highlighting his concerns about the social and financial impacts of the border zone being too narrow.

"While I understand [they] are primarily focused on protecting Queenslanders, I do believe there needs to be a slightly larger bubble and some more exemptions," he said.

NSW Agriculture Minister and Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall has also been calling for the designated border bubble to be redefined and expanded to include Local Government Areas, after he has been contacted by hundreds of people who have been impacted by the recent border closure.

"The hurt inflicted by this border closure is real and completely needless, given the obvious low health risks in our region," he said.

NSW Farmers is backing these calls to address disruptions to routine farm management activities due to the border closures, and is working with Mr Marshall on an agriculture permit system.

NSW Farmers president James Jackson said the recently agreed code for the freight sector has the capacity to be expanded to agricultural workers, contractors and farmers with farms on both sides of the border.

"We do recognise the important intent of the border closures to suppress the spread of COVID-19, but these hard measures are having a major impact on the agriculture sector, food production and the economic health of regional NSW," he said.

"Producing food to keep the nation fed is time-critical for farmers. Dairy farmers must milk every day, fruit and vegetables must be harvested when ready and ongoing pest and disease management for livestock and broadacre crops is critical."

This story The bumper harvest just waiting for workers in the border bubble first appeared on The Northern Daily Leader.