More than 56,000 rapid antigen tests (RATs) have been distributed to Victorian farmers as changes to isolation requirements exacerbate worker shortages.
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The rapid antigen tests have been distributed to 24 towns across Victoria.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Mikaela Ortolan)

Key points:

  • Victorian farmers welcome the distribution of 56,000 rapid antigen tests
  • The tests were supplied to ease the pressure on the supply chain caused by isolation requirements
  • Without access to the tests many face worker shortages

The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), Food and Fibre Gippsland and Fruit Growers Victoria came together to source the tests in a matter of weeks before touring around the state and delivering them to 24 towns.

VFF chief executive Jane Lovell said the organisation wanted to make an impact fast.

“The government changed the rules and said close contacts can still go to work as long as you can prove you’re negative,” she said.

woman in akubra and blue top talking to man at table
Jane Lovell, VFF CEO, distributed tests to farmers in Horsham.(ABC Wimmera: Alexander Darling)

Under the changes, close contacts are required to produce a negative rapid antigen test every day for five consecutive days to attend work.

With the tests hard to come by, the changes were doing more harm than good in the industry.

“This is a lifesaver,” Ms Lovell said.

woman with mask filling blue bag with boxes of rapid antigen tests
Fruit Growers Victoria’ Leanne Johansson says harvest workers are in short supply.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Mikaela Ortolan)

Crucial time for growers

Fruit Growers Victoria business development manager Leanne Johansson said orchardists needed enough tests to supply to teams of up to 30 people.

“There’s already the pressure that there is nowhere near enough harvest workers this year and to add to that some of the workers have been in isolation.”

Ms Johansson said it had been a “bittersweet thank you” from growers who stood to lose more staff if they returned positive tests.

“They’re still really nervous about the harvest season,” she said.

“It means … people they thought they could use they can’t now, because they are actually positive without any symptoms.”

man in singlet wearing richmond tigers face mask holding boxes of rapid antigen tests under arm
Kiewa Valley farmer Chris Van Der Weyde says the tests provide a sense of security.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Mikaela Ortolan)

Tests give certainty, farmer says

Towong Upper dairy farmer, Brett Findlay, made the three-hour round trip from the Upper Murray to pick up 44 boxes of tests in Wodonga.

“There’s some for us, some for my cousin and some for the neighbour up the road,” Mr Findlay said.

“It gives us more certainty that if someone does develop symptoms we can sideline them and not have all of our staff out at once.”

Mr Findlay said his Upper Murray dairy farm was already three people down than this time last year.

“One staff member we’ve had to let go because she was unwilling to get vaccinated,” he said.

“There’s three of us milking full-time plus one part-timer, and two of the three full-time staff are me and my wife.

He said finding tests in Corryong had been near impossible and was grateful for the supplied kits.

Man in cap and mask holding box of tests
Scott McKillop says he needs the tests for his workers and family after a staff member tested positive to COVID.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Mikaela Ortolan)

Positive cases add to staff shortage

With one staff member testing positive to COVID already, co-founder of Mountain Milk Cooperative, Scott McKillop, has been busy juggling rosters to ensure enough staff to get jobs done.

“We’re just trying to be careful that we don’t spread it amongst our work group and our community group as well,” he said.

He said there would be significant impacts if the whole dairy was wiped out.

“If we all got it, I’m not really sure what we would do,” Mr McKillop said.

Beef producer Alyson Miller echoed the concerns and said it would have a huge impact on production.

“We’re in the process of weening cattle at the moment and they have to be fed,” she said.

“If we’re all in quarantine … I don’t know where we would get access to assistance to help us in that process,” she said.

Ms Lovell said the VFF would look at doing something similar again if there was a need.

Pioneering females are disproving the old-fashioned view that dairy is an industry for men. Meet the dairywomen reshaping the narrative.

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