FFN Opinion: The bush boom – is it sustainable?

Future Farmers Network directors regularly give their opinion on the latest news, events and issues in agriculture for an article for Australian Community Media. Here’s the most recent yarn from FFN Director Susannah White.

The combined forces of a bumper season and the COVID-related boom in regional tourism have created a real buzz across much of regional New South Wales.

Winter crop harvest is underway and shaping up well, while many towns are brimming with visitors who are opening their wallets and doing their bit to boost the local economy.

Compared to this time last year, when stock feeding and firefighting were daily tasks, things are certainly looking up for many regional towns.

But with international travel still restricted, and as domestic border closures begin to ease, the sustainability of this bush boom is called into question.

Living in the thriving tourist town of Mudgee, in central west New South Wales, the impact of the COVID-related spike in domestic tourism is impossible to ignore.

For weeks the town has been bustling with visitors, and word on the street is that you can’t book a hotel room in town until next year.

This is undoubtedly a wonderful upside of the COVID crisis, but as domestic borders start to re-open and people go back to work, many are wondering how long, if at all, the increased popularity of regional destinations like ours will last.

The good news is industry experts predict regional visitation numbers to stay high, even post-COVID, with the benefits to be sustained so long as the necessary training, upskilling and services are in place to allow regional businesses to retain their staff.

The issue of people and staff retention is not a new one for regional towns, and it’s one that is also being acutely felt by farmers who might have previously relied on foreign workers to man their harvest teams.

Whether it’s the current winter crop harvest, or the upcoming wine vintage, COVID has not only left many without labour for harvest, but also exposed a weak link in the broader understanding of our agricultural industries and the opportunities they present.

The fact that even at a time when so many find themselves out of work thanks to COVID, farmers are struggling to attract and retain labour is alarming and will hopefully prove a lesson for us all.

Rain or no rain, ultimately people are at the core of regional Australia and our ability to attract, retain, and sustain them in our communities will be important for its future.