A fruitful cherry season, in spite of the challenges

Summer would be so much duller without cherries. Victoria’s Koala Cherries applied COVID-safe practices to keep its operation ticking along.

Who doesn’t love a cherry or two during summer, eaten on their own, in a trifle or topping a pavlova?

No wonder demand for them always soars at this time of the year.

Koala cherries production complexSpare a thought, though, for the people who worked day and night to bring this highly perishable product to you during harvest, which ran from November to mid-January.

This included the pickers and packers at family-owned Koala Cherries – one of the state’s largest cherry producers – whose day often begins at sunrise and finishes when the extreme afternoon heat kicks in.

At its shed in the town of Yarck in Victoria’s North East, more than 2000 tonnes of cherries, sourced from 200 hectares across 10 farms in Cobram, Yarck/Alexandra and Strathbogie, were prepped for delivery.

“We employ around 250 people in the packhouse, and up to 400 on our farms in the lead up to our peak at Christmas,” says Koala Cherries CEO, Michael Rouget, who runs the business with five other family members (with more coming on to help out at harvest time).

Due to the pandemic, his business had to do things a little differently this year.

It employed local seasonal workers through the Victorian Government online jobs platform, Working for Victoria.

Perspex screens added to their production lineA smart idea, according to Michael, as “with the absence of backpackers which provided approximately 40 per cent of our shed staff, we’d had difficulty finding adequate numbers.”

Farm businesses are continually registering employment opportunities through Working for Victoria and there are currently more than 1000 agricultural jobs up for grabs.

Koala Cherries also rolled out COVIDSafe work practices via a $300,000 grant to set up extra staff facilities including handwashing facilities, toilets and lunchrooms to comply with physical distancing requirements in the packhouse and on farms.

“Perspex screens were also added to production lines where distancing wasn’t able to be achieved,” Michael adds.

Further financial assistance subsidised accommodation, transport, and relocation expenses for 100 new Koala Cherries workers.

“The accommodation incentives allowed us to source people further than 120 kilometres from here, and the daily fuel and meal subsidies encouraged people to drive further distances to get here,” Michael explains. “Being a small community, there’s not a lot of accommodation… mainly caravan parks, rental houses, and motels. But we’re also looking to work with local school camp providers, already equipped with a range of accommodation types.”

Find out more about seasonal work opportunities and the support available at agriculture.vic.gov.au/bigharvest.

Q&A: Michael Rouget, CEO, Koala Cherries

Michael checking cherriesPicking’s all by hand. At what time do workers head out into the orchards?

At 6.30am, if it’s going to be hot. We finish when the temperature reaches 32 degrees if possible. The standard workday is around seven hours.

How do you pay pickers?

They’re paid by the kilogram, adjusted each day by variety. It’s dependent on the crop load on the tree, fruit size and the ease of the variety to come off the tree and the number of cherries in a bunch. We base the rate on what an average competent worker can earn per hour and adjust accordingly. Some people can earn quite a lot of money and some will find it difficult and prefer work that’s paid by the hour.

How do you pay workers in the packing shed?

We pay an hourly rate, as per the horticulture award, and their day begins around 8am. A standard day is about nine hours. We’re very busy, working seven days per week, rostering shed staff off one day in seven. We can accommodate staff with other commitments, rostering people on and off to make sure we have adequate staff on hand and meeting rest day requirements.

Is there a sense of camaraderie?

Yes. It always pleases us to see everyone working together to complete a successful harvest and ensure our cherries are delivered to customers ‘just in time’. People are usually grateful for the work and quickly learn the job, help each other out and seem to really thrive on becoming part of a team. It provides a great opportunity for young people to learn from experienced team leaders and to meet people from a range of backgrounds.

What do you love most about your job?

Growing the fruit and putting things in place to improve each year. We spend all year preparing for the harvest and to see it all come together at the end is really pleasing. Seeing the training and learning start to be put into place, and the whole packhouse buzz with busy-ness, especially Christmas week… everyone helping other members of their team to get fruit to the market for Christmas gifting and feasting.

Favourite Christmas cherry dish?

I reckon fresh is best. But if adding to a pav or trifle, don’t forget to pip them first!

Vox pop

washing cherriesWe chat with three Koala Cherries employees signed up through Working for Victoria.

“This is my third season working in the packhouse. I “sorted” in my first season and am now a punnets supervisor. It’s great meeting people from diverse backgrounds. This a good opportunity to commit to a job for a short period (cherry season’s very short – less than three months), learn new skills and experience different things.”
Freya, 22, Alexandra.

“I’ve worked here as a cherry packer – ensuring the packaged product consists of premium quality fruit – since the start of the season. I have made lots of friends and it’s a nice work environment; I feel safe, secure and well supported. To others considering seasonal work, I strongly recommend it – give it a go.”
Fay, 40, Wodonga. 

“I’ve worked in the packhouse since November in quality control – helping assess and solve problems with cherry quality. I love meeting people from all walks of life and training people to sort cherries. My advice to others considering seasonal work is ‘Do it!’. You have to learn quickly because it’s such a short season but it’s lots of fun.”
Molly, 18, Melbourne.

Interested in working in agriculture and want to try something new this year? There’s seasonal farm work available across regional Victoria. For details head to agriculture.vic.gov.au/bigharvest.