Ley Webster trains farm workers and runs a recruitment agency to supply workers to West Australian farmers — but she has a problem.
In the past year, the number of second-year working holiday visas grew by 20 per cent
One WA farmer is training backpackers in farm skills to meet demand for workers
There is a push for farm au pairs to count as agricultural workers under visa rules
She says demand for good seasonal agricultural workers is outstripping her ability to supply them and her agency is stretched to the limit.
Each year since 2012 at her property at Greenhills, about 120 kilometres east of Perth, Ms Webster has trained and found jobs for 200 travellers from Europe, South America and Canada.
“I’ve got a network of over 500 [farmers] looking for staff in WA, and there’s more room for me to do more, but it’s limited by how many numbers of trainees we can fit through here,” she said.
But with farmers finding it hard to attract Australians willing to work in agriculture, news that the number of second-year working holiday makers grew by 20 per cent in the past year has been welcomed by the sector.
In 2018-19, there were more than 43,000 second-year 417 working holiday visas granted — 7,000 more than the previous year.
And the recent introduction of the third-year 417 visa has accelerated interest in backpackers looking to stay even longer.
Training course delivers backpackers to farmers
Backpackers come to Ms Webster’s farm for a four-day course in grain and livestock farming.
“There’s no law or rules to say they have to do training for farming, but it certainly improves their job opportunities, it improves their productivity and improves their safety,” she said.
Ms Webster takes young, mostly European backpackers who pay $550 for the course and connects them with a farming family in the state’s grain-growing areas.
She said travellers were keen to learn sheep-handling skills and understand how stockyards and shearing sheds worked, and farmers were equally keen to find workers with those basic skills.
They also get to drive tractors, harvesters and experience how to manoeuvre a chaser bin next to a header to load grain on the move — an essential skill during harvest time.
The idea to prepare backpackers into farm-ready workers, armed with some understanding how grain farming works in WA, came to Ms Webster when she experienced first hand the difficulty of finding staff willing to work in the bush.
Farmer friends were complaining about backpackers’ lack of skills, and backpackers complained about the unrealistic expectations put upon them by farmers.
“There was a lot of negatives on both sides about the experience people were having and I thought we needed to change that,” she said.
Travellers keen to learn something new
Nineteen-year-old Frida Krogh Corydon, who comes from a small rural town in Denmark, signed up for the course while travelling with her boyfriend.
Both of them were keen to learn something new.
“I’m used to looking at farms and fields and tractors, but I’ve never really been a part of it so I thought about doing it,” Ms Corydon said.
“In Denmark, a lot of people go to Australia because it’s different from Denmark, but you can still work because we speak English.
“And you earn quite a lot in farm work here, so that way I would still [make] money and I would get an interesting experience out of it.”
For Rasmus Mortensen, who’s in his early 20s and from a family farm in Denmark, the opportunity to find a work placement on a grain property through the farm skills course fitted in with his travel plans.
On his second day at the Wheatbelt farm, the contrast to life in Europe had already made an impression.
“It’s really beautiful. The silence out here, that’s something I’ll remember, and the stars … there’s no light from the cities at this farm, it’s really, really nice,” he said.
Push for au pairs to count as farm work
To meet visa requirements for their second term, backpackers must work physical and manual jobs on farms rather than housework or au pairing.
But Ms Webster is pushing for au pair work — looking after the children of farming families — to be included as agricultural work.
“A lot of farming families could really benefit from having au pairs on that list,” she said.
“We get a lot of girls and guys coming in and they’ve got those skills to be an au pair for the family … then the husband and wife can concentrate on running the farm, and that is a really productive combination.
“At harvest time, cooking meals and delivering meals out to workers, they are still part of a team that makes that farm happen … without that person the team is not complete.”