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Gray nomads are helping fill a shortage of skilled workers in sugarcane harvesting in North Queensland

It was pure luck that led ex-miner Steven Fry to the Burdekin Shire, about 100 kilometers southeast of Townsville, to work as a cane harvester.

It is the 59-year-old’s first time participating in seasonal work and he is one of a growing number of gray nomads filling the region’s shortage of skilled workers.

“It’s the best-kept secret in the world, in my opinion,” Fry said.

“I popped onto the Gray Nomads website and saw they wanted tow truck drivers and thought it would be worth something.”

Workers guard the burning fields, a nightly ritual to prepare the cane for harvesting. (ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

As farms try to attract permanent, part-time and seasonal workers, local growers and travelers alike agree that both sectors benefit from the unique work arrangements.

“The five months we work and seven months off is great,” he said.

“With my lifestyle, it suits the road.

“Going back to Monday through Friday every week of the year, I’m done.”

Steven Fry says the opportunity is a chance for gray nomads to learn new skills. (ABC North Queensland: Baz Ruddick)

making a “stick change”.

Burdekin Shire Council has urged travelers to switch sticks and promised attractive wages during harvest.

Faced with a tight rental market, industry experts cite a lack of accommodation as the main deterrent for prospective workers.

Gray nomads provide their own accommodation. (ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

Cane grower Alexander Dal Santo said the shortage has forced many growers to fill labor gaps themselves.

“You cut corners and take shortcuts just to get the job done within reason,” Dal Santo said.

“It is more difficult to get younger employees.

“It seems that people don’t want to work anymore, or they’re not that interested, or they’d rather move to the cities.”

Wet weather has delayed the harvest this year. (ABC North Queensland: Baz Ruddick)

Age is no barrier

Mr Dal Santo’s seasonal workforce consists of just three gray nomads, including 62-year-old Wayne Fawcett, who traveled from regional Victoria with his wife Barbara for first-time seasonal work.

“It’s not a young man’s game, it’s everybody’s game,” Fawcett said.

Wayne Fawcett says the nomadic lifestyle is “absolutely wonderful”. (ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

“As long as you’re reasonably fit, age doesn’t matter.

He said the work was “a bit physical” but you can do it at any age.

“You’re close to all the facilities you need, so a woman doesn’t have to be bored … she could even drive a truck if she had a permit,” he said.

Lifestyle has drawn 52-year-old veteran Michael Terwiel back for another season.

Michael Terwiel returned for his second season of catch. (ABC North Queensland: Baz Ruddick)

“It’s probably the opposite of the discipline that exists in defence,” he said.

“You still work in a close-knit group, but otherwise you’re left to your own devices.”

With harvest expected to end in December, some workers are already planning to return next year and are spreading the word on social media to attract more RVs to the area.

Mr Fry says it’s a chance to have fun, meet great people and make money. (ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

“Make sure you pack a good sense of humor when you pack your lunch because you’re probably going to need it,” Terwiel said.

“If you’re going to come and do something like this, be prepared to take the good days with the bad.”

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