Avocado grower Daryl Boardman, who has a farm called Sunnyspot near Toowoomba, sounds weary.
“As an employer I don’t like to say this, but it’s true: the one bit of running a business that is really getting me down is employing people,” he says. “I’ve employed people for over 30 years, and I’ve always loved it, but I’m probably not just enjoying it as much as I did.”
After years of COVID-induced border closures that crippled farmers’ typical backpacker workforce, Boardman still has a long list of issues. A tight labour market makes it hard to find staff, backpackers prefer coastal towns with surf to the inland, workers take weeks to train but often leave just as quickly or take days off without notice and the dearth of accommodation in regional centres means some just can’t stay in the area.
Before the Jobs Summit at the start of September, farmers were warning that food was being left to rot in the field because of labour shortages. By the end of the summit, their peak lobby group, the National Farmers Federation, said there had only been “incremental” gains.
So farmers like Boardman are willing to give robots a try.
If all goes to plan, a robot from an Australian start-up called Lyro Robotics will join the workers in Boardman’s packing shed and deftly pick up avocados from a conveyor belt with its rubbery suction “hand” and place them gently in trays bound for supermarket shelves.
The opportunity for automating agriculture is enormous. A 2020 report by the consultancy McKinsey & Company found autonomous farm machinery could add up to $60 billion to global GDP by the end of the decade.
A Lyro robot at work on a zucchini farm.
But though farms are increasingly using technology for things like monitoring livestock, soil and plant conditions, actual automation is in its infancy. At a farm like Boardman’s there is nothing much more mechanised than a ute, tractor or conveyor belt. The crucial stages: planting trees, picking fruit and putting it in a tray, are done by hand.