‘Grey Nomads’ emerging as rural workforce solution for Australian agriculture industry

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 1st August 2011

The Australian agricultural industry is looking to “grey nomads” as the answer to rural Australia’s labour shortage.

Grey nomads are the descriptor used for retirees typically aged in their 60s or older who travel around Australia. Many are now performing seasonal work on farms to sustain their travels.

Across the rural sector, the number of grey nomads in seasonal employment is currently around 15 per cent, but this is predicted to rise to as high as 60 per cent of seasonal labour in the next 20 years.

According to the peak body for agricultural labour, Agrifood Skills Australia, grey nomads have become an indispensible workforce in some agricultural industries such as seafood processing and horticultural harvesting.

Within the horticultural industry in particular, many grey nomads take what is known as the “Harvest Trail”. The Harvest Trail is an Australian Government initiative that matches grey nomads and other seasonal workers with available jobs in horticultural harvest. This is done through a functional website, a free 1800 information hotline, and various information booklets featuring sample itineraries based on harvest seasons and locations.

More of Australia’s rural industries are currently looking into developing additional linkages between tourism and seasonal labour. A 2008 “Labour Shortage Action Plan”, published by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), noted that one of the advantages of grey nomads as a seasonal labour force is that they often purposefully travel to remote areas of the country as a “tree-change” from their urban lifestyles, while conversely, more permanent employees may be deterred by the remotedness of the work location to major commercial centres.

The 2008 Action Plan of the NFF had recommended marketing seasonal work and the benefits of rural lifestyles not only to grey nomads, but also gap year students and international working holiday-makers as a short-term solution to rural Australia’s dwindling labour force.

During the past week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has run rural stories featuring news about the labour shortages in rural Australia,and the potential for grey nomads, and the experiences of grey nomads on the harvest trail.

Up and down the coast of Western Australia, grey nomads comprise 80 per cent of the seafood processing labour. Western Australia has a very tight labour market as the booming mining industry in the north is gulping up all available labour. (The mining companies are offering big pay-packets and ‘fly-in-fly-out’ working arrangements.)

At the same time in eastern Australia, the harvest trail also offers good rewards with a pleasant lifestyle picking the fruit crops.