Hundreds of jobs on offer in predicted blueberry boom

THE Northern Rivers might be short of jobs, but one local company has plenty on offer and could struggle to find enough takers.

Mountain Blue Orchards is looking to fill hundreds of seasonal fruit picker vacancies during its upcoming blueberry harvest, which ramps up in the coming weeks and runs until about mid-November.

The catch is the jobs are based in Tabulam.

Founder and owner Ridley Bell said an estimated 750 pickers were needed at the Tabulam farm this year - a 50% increase from last year in what is predicted to be a bumper season.

The company is also in the middle of building a brand new multimillion dollar packing shed at Tabulam which is already employing tradespeople and labourers - and will employ about 50-60 people during the estimated 5-6 month season.

The company usually relies on backpackers on 417 working holiday visas to supplement its labour force, but Mr Bell said the Federal Government's budget decision to increase the so-called "backpacker tax" from 13% to 32% on July 1 could potentially limit the number of applicants he gets.

The tax kicks in from dollar one earned - so backpackers aren't entitled to any upfront tax free threshold.

One thing that isn't clear to Mr Bell is whether backpackers could retroactively claim their tax free threshold after leaving the country, which could be a "sweetener" for potential pickers.

"It's really hard to get information (from the Federal Government)…. And July the 1st is closing in on us," he said.

"We really need to have some answers even to just to let people know."


Mountain Blue's Natalie Bell and her father Ridley with Eureka blueberries ready to pick. Photo Contributed
Mountain Blue's Natalie Bell and her father Ridley with Eureka blueberries ready to pick. Photo Contributed Contributed

He said while all locals are given first priority - a principle that is clearly spelled out on the company's website - of the 600 residents in Tabulam he estimated only about 40 locals joined the picking crews.

Mountain Blue HR manager Gabe Kerz said backpackers made up about 80% of the picking crews at Tabulam.

The company has employed people from outside the immediate area, including paying for a bus service from Casino, where a portion of the backpacker labour force will also stay.

It is also looking to employ pickers from the surrounding towns, but Ms Kerz said the seasonal and remote nature of the work made it harder to attract locals.

Mr Bell said there was "no way" they would get enough enquiries from locals to fill the positions.

"I don't think the government weights up when they talk about clawing back $500 million in lost tax they don't look at the value to Casino, and Tabulam, and Bonalbo and Tenterfield and Drake of all these backpackers coming in with their pockets full of money," he said.

"They pay rent in the area, they've got to find accommodation."

"There's a lot of money coming into the community out here because of backpackers."

"You take a trip out to Tabulam and walk into the grocery store, and (the owner) is just hanging out for backpackers.

"The local café makes a lot of money from backpackers.

"There is a huge benefit to local communities.

"It's always on our agenda to find them wherever we can.

With the season just weeks away, applications and enquires are now open.

"As it stands at the moment we reckon we would be looking at about 100 people by mid-June," Mr Bell said.

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