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Australian fruit farms feel the heat in northern Victoria

As the season reaches a critical stage, northern Victoria's fruit growers are very concerned about the soaring water prices and the problems of acquiring labour. Mick Young, from Woorinen near Swan Hill, is a director of Sharp Fruit and grows nectarines, peaches and plums. He spoke to AAP outside Sharp's one-year-old packing shed, surrounded by paddocks lined with nectarine trees adorned with pink and white flowers.

"It seems to be only going up so it's going to put a fair bit of pressure on everyone," Mr Young said. The horticulture sector has been crying out for a dedicated agriculture visa for years without the federal government heeding its calls.

Young said a lot of people on holiday-making visas - one of the categories the government has extended to address labour shortages - weren't suited to outdoor work. "They're just not used to the heat, not really interested in doing hands-on labour. If they're not suited and they don't have making money at heart, then you don't really know if they're going to show up the next day."

This year's harvest will also be the first since the Fair Work Commission boosted penalty rates in April. Under changes to the horticulture award, overtime payments kick in after 304 hours worked in an eight-week period.

"Penalty rates is going to be a huge issue," Mr Young said. "We can do 304 hours through harvest period in no time. With water as well it's all adding up in one season."

Mr Young's personal farm is about 80 ha, while Sharp packs fruit for eight companies totalling about 320 ha. He met with Federal Water Minister David Littleproud on Monday during a tour of the southern basin.

"If I was an older person and I didn't have kids coming through I'd scrap the joint and get out of it," he said. But he believes there is a good future in fruit if farmers can find ways to navigate this tough period. "There are farmers around here that are really really concerned about where it's going to end up," Young said.


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