This time each year, the Dawe family of Young dust down their headers, pack their eskys and kiss their families goodbye before they head out the front gate and turn north for the summer harvest.
The journey of thousands of miles for these harvest contractors starts at Murringo, near Young, and weaves slowly up through the guts of NSW before landing in a paddock near Condamine, in Queensland.
Most years, it’s bits of machinery that Nigel Dawe and his two sons, Phillip and Garry, sweat on before heading out.
But this year the whole shebang was at stake. The family, having upgraded their fleet of headers, had eyes glued to maps as they tracked the progress of three new machines which departed New Holland’s Belgium manufacturing base by ship in June 2021.
They were up against everything – the global COVID-19 pandemic, shipping delays and then potentially unhappy dockworkers in Melbourne. But miraculously, last week the headers arrived in Young from Port Kembla to some high-fiving farmers.
Microscopic movement on a world map was one thing, but by comparison, the volume of paperwork the 2021 harvest had become created a level of discomfort not felt since the Dawe family started the contracting business back in 1996.
Yet as the first header rolled out on Friday, 8 October, it drove into an unknown world of changeable invisible barriers and rules of NSW and Queensland during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re still filling out paperwork, and have to be fully vaccinated and return a negative COVID-19 test before leaving,” says Garry. “We’ve all had to create COVID-19 plans, exchange those with the farms we’re working on, and send them into Queensland to get border passes.”
He says if he could convert to money the amount of time spent on the phone securing permits, he’d be rolling in coin.
“The biggest thing we’ve had to deal with is which permits we need to fill out,” says Garry. “They’re so similar when you read them. We’ve sent some away only to be told they were the wrong ones – it might just be a matter of a few words’ difference.
“We still need to find out where we’re allowed to cross the border and I’m not 100 per cent sure if we have to have another test on the border. Then we have to isolate on the farms.”
Farmers in Australia’s north are still scratching their heads about how to harvest fields full of crops with limited access to harvest workers and COVID-19 testing facilities that have limited hours of operation.
NSW Farmers Grains Committee chair Justin Everitt said NSW Farmers has been getting calls about harvest workers having to deal with inconsistent rules at the state borders.
He said growers in the north of the state had been reporting COVID-19 testing sites either aren’t located in the right spots, or aren’t open at appropriate times, and the need to line up for testing every few days is putting people off coming across the border for work.
“In the north, a lack of resources at border crossings at Boggabilla, Mungindi and Boomi will lead to unacceptable delays,” said Mr Everitt. “What’s more, harvest is a 24/7 process, but some of these testing centres are only open from 9 am to 3 pm.”
Mr Everitt said NSW Farmers understood there was a lot of fear and hesitancy around COVID-19.
“But this is the second year we’ve had fields chock full of crops, and state borders getting in the way of harvest,” he said. “We’re not talking about bringing all of Sydney to country Victoria or outback Queensland – this is a relatively small number of regional workers who need to go back and forth across the border to get these crops in on time.
“It’s time the politicians put their differences aside and put in place some common-sense arrangements or we’ll see a man-made disaster unfold across the industry.”
NSW Minister for Regional Transport and Roads Paul Toole says harvest contractors would be able to use the 11 freight-friendly pop-up COVID-19 testing sites established along key routes for truckies and other freight workers.
“This will help them meet border entry COVID-19 testing requirements of neighbouring states as they take off for what is shaping up to be a record crop,” he said.
This news is welcomed by the Dawe family, but it still leaves them slightly skeptical.
“I hope when we reach the border it’s a simple as it sounds,” says Garry. “Because there’s nothing worse than having to do an extra 170km at 40km an hour on the highway with the sun setting.”
“And I guarantee it won’t be much fun if I’m not allowed into Queensland,” he said.
If refused entry, Garry will have to join the family when they head south to Warren in the NSW Central West, then onto Bribbaree at the edge of the state’s Southwest Slopes, before harvesting their own farm. The team will also need to find an extra header driver for Queensland.