A farmers' conference in Canberra has evolved into an interesting power play involving robots, another potential leadership spill, and Australia's richest man

In the future, farms won’t have farmers. Picture: Getty Images

Australia’s richest man, Anthony Pratt, believes robots could be the answer to a growing shortage of backpacker labour on farms across the country.

Pratt, the executive chairman of Visy Industries, appeared yesterday at the National Farmers’ Federation congress to outline a 20-year plan to secure Australia’s agricultural export future.

Also making an appearance at the congress was Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who is currently mired in a tense discussion within his own Coalition government about how to address a predicted shortfall of some 100,000 agricultural workers over the next decade.

This morning, Morrison told the congress in Canberra he wanted a “fair dinkum” conversation about introducing a new visa for overseas farm workers.

“We will work to establish an agriculture visa – that is the long-term solution, even the medium-term solution,” Morrison said.

Timing is everything. Late last night, news broke that McCormack may actually be facing a leadership challenge.

The level of criticism from within his own party is growing, focused on perceived inaction from McCormack on addressing problems such as the worker shortfall.

Morrison seized on the opportunity at the congress this morning to back his deputy PM, saying:

“It has been (Nationals leader) Michael McCormack and I who have been working on this plan from the day we signed up as a coalition.”

The National Farmers Federation is lobbying strongly for the new visa, but Morrison says he won’t be rushed. There are concerns sit could hurt relationships with Pacific countries, which since 2012, have sent some 17,000 workers to Australian farms under the Seasonal Workers Program.

According to a report from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, Pacific Islanders stay up to six times longer at a farm than backpackers and are on average 20% more productive.

Nevertheless, Morrison is under pressure to help his deputy and address a problem that, according to Fruit Growers Victoria, led to hundreds of tonnes of fruit rotting in Victoria and Tasmania in the 2017-18 season.

Picture: Getty Images

Before this year’s harvest, Morrison’s government is asking farmers to participate in a scheme that will see them lodge their labour needs on a national database, which could match jobseekers with vacancies.

“We’ve never ever said we don’t think that’s a good idea,” Morrison said in regard to a new category of visa.

“But we have to go about it in the right way and it’s not a silver bullet.

“It doesn’t solve all the problems for upcoming harvest.”

Pratt told the congress yesterday that “on-farm robotics solve the backpacker labour shortage”.

Along with scrapping the 15% backpacker tax, he said robots would “ensure that no fruit is left behind because of a lack of labour to pick it”.

Robots can certainly help, but they’re also a major investment, essentially requiring farmers to start from scratch to ensure their crops are bot-friendly.

A notable recent example was the “Hands Free Hectare” experiment in Shropshire, England, where £200,000 in government funding helped convert a hectare of barren land, a tractor and a 25-year-old combine harvester to yield 4.9 tons of barley.

There are, however, inexpensive ways to utilise the Internet of Things to replace large chunks of labour ion established farms, and they’re yielding significant benefits.

But build it from the ground up, and shareholders certainly like the idea. The SMH reports Australian agricultural innovators Costa has “seen its share price soar on the back of glasshouse-based farming,” which uses robots to pick its strawberries and blueberries.

Somewhat ironically, in China, where autonomous farming robots are pushing the technology’s boundaries hardest, there are concerns for what that will mean for an estimated 250 million farmhands it could displace.

Elsewhere in Asia-Pacific, Australia mulls robot workers because it can’t find enough human farmhands to harvest the high-quality fresh food so in demand in China.

Pratt, arguably Australia’s highest profile food security philanthropist, says Chinese buyers “often don’t trust the safety of Chinese-produced food”.

“And our exports of food to the booming middle classes in Asia alone grew by 51% this last year.”

It’s almost comical. In Fiji, where Australia is currently pulling farmhands from, Australian researchers are trialling robot farmers to help fill a shortfall of farmhands.

And today, Australia may even see Barnaby Joyce re-elected as Nationals leader in part because the current Nationals leader can’t sort it all out.

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