Simfresh

Picking citrus and keeping their distance: Horticulture during the time of COVID-19

When coronavirus restrictions began, Simfresh—which produces almost 2m boxes of citrus annually from farms in NSW and Queensland—was “already ahead of the game” in helping its workers stay healthy and happy during the pandemic, operations manager Luke Cini says.

A worker wearing a yellow top and gloves picking an orange

Amidst all the social distancing and self-isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, many horticulture businesses around Australia are busily preparing for a picking season that will look a little different this year.

Autumn crops are just about ready, and farms are finding creative ways to make sure they and their staff can safely continue to provide fresh produce to Australian supermarkets and grocers.

Simfresh, which grows mainly citrus crops at Gol Gol in New South Wales and Gin Gin in Queensland, currently employs 15 Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) workers, and around 40 Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) staff. 

The business has worked with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Pacific Labour Facility to bring on several PLS staff who were previously working in the tourism industry, but were redeployed after COVID-19 travel restrictions began.

‘Everyone will be needing their vitamin C!’

According to Simfresh operations manager, Luke Cini, the citrus season looks like it will be starting a little earlier this year. 

He’s anticipating demand for the fruit will be strong over the coming months, and said the business has been finding new and innovative ways to make sure its workers stay healthy and happy.

“We figure everyone will be needing their vitamin C at the moment!” he said.

“All the workers are healthy and ready to go. We’ll probably start picking this week, then we’ll start packing and sending the fruit out straight away.”

When travel and self-isolation restrictions started last month, Luke said, Simfresh had already put several new measures in place to help its staff adapt to a different way of working.

“When things really kicked off we were lucky, we were probably a bit ahead of the game,” he said. 

“We already had 600 reusable, washable face masks made up by a local who lives near our NSW farm and had offered to do it quite early on. 

“The masks are colour-coded, which helps us to manage our social distancing. Smokoes and lunch breaks have been spaced out so there are three of each every day, and the coloured masks help the workers know when they are supposed to go on their breaks. People with red masks go at a certain time, while people with blue masks have their smoko later on, and so on.

“We’ve built a new lunch shed that has space heaters, an outdoor area and 10 tables with only four chairs at each table. This will help keep workers warm during the cooler months, and help them keep their distance from each other.”

‘We’ve bought Playstations for every worker household’

Luke said workers are also finding new ways of keeping themselves occupied outside work hours.

“Some of the workers have borrowed my home gymnasium equipmentwith my blessingand are using it every day to work out,” Luke said.

“We’ve also bought Playstations for every worker household. So that’s all doing a pretty good job of keeping people safe at home and occupied while they are not working!”

Simfresh usually supplies around 1.8 million boxes of citrus fruit each year to both the Australian domestic and export markets, and is a major supplier of citrus to Coles. It is expecting to deliver similar quantities of produce to customers this year.

(Location is indicative to the nearest town)
A group of workers wearing red face masks and orange tops pack oranges into black crates inside a packing shed