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Exploring migrants’ knowledge and skill in seasonal farm work: more than labouring bodies


Migrant farmworkers dominate the horticultural workforce in many parts of the Minority (developed) World. The ‘manual’ work that they do—picking and packing fruits and vegetables, and pruning vines and trees—is widely designated unskilled. In policy, media, academic, activist and everyday discourses, hired farm work is framed as something anybody can do. We interrogate this notion with empirical evidence from the Sunraysia horticultural region of Australia. The region’s grape and almond farms depend heavily on migrant workers. By-and-large, the farmers and farmworkers we spoke to pushed back against the unskilled tag. They asserted that farmworkers acquire knowledge and skills over time and that experienced farmworkers are valuable—their value being brought into sharp relief against accounts of inexperienced farmworkers’ errors. Our interviewees provided rich insights into farmworkers’ engagements with crops and the intricacies of picking and pruning well. Far from being bereft of knowledge and skills, they recognised that experienced farmworkers bring benefits. They improve productivity, product quality and ultimately profits. This is especially so when open communication channels exist across the farm hierarchy, when experienced farmworkers’ insights are taken seriously by their employers. Our research is informed by organisational studies literature and scholarship on craft/making. Like factory floor workers and artisans, experienced farmworkers bring accumulated knowledge and skills to their work, gained through repeat performance. They reflect on and adjust their activities in dialogue with their materials and the environment. Experienced farmworkers demonstrate care, dexterity and judgement. They are not unskilled, and they are more than labouring bodies.

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  1. We use the terms ‘Minority World’ and ‘Majority World’ (instead of North/South, developed/developing world, First World/Third World). These terms do not contain embedded geographical inaccuracies and serve as a reminder that wealthy lifestyles are experienced by a minority of the world’s population (Punch 2000).

  2. Tacit knowledge “denotes all intellectual or corporeal capabilities and skills that the individual cannot fully articulate, represent or codify…[it] is developed from direct experience, observation or interaction in which one largely learns by doing” (Williams and Baláž 2008, pp. 55–57).

  3. Some authors have acknowledged the farming expertise of “agriculturally experienced immigrants” (Imbruce 2007, p. 41), but these discussions have focused on migrants who become farm owners post-migration, or who grow food in community gardens or backyards—not migrant farmworkers (e.g. Frost 2002; Minkoff-Zern 2012; Cabannes and Raposo 2013; Taylor and Taylor-Lovell 2014).

  4. The report’s authors urged some caution in interpreting their productivity findings, which were based on analysing data from 150 SWP participants and 109 WHMs on three farms over three financial years, and focused on fruit picking tasks only (Zhao et al. 2018).

  5. Approved employers are responsible for “organising flights, transport and accommodation for workers, pastoral care, ensuring seasonal workers have access to a minimum average of 30 h of work per week and monitoring the seasonal workers’ wellbeing” (Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business 2019, no page).

  6. Budding, like grafting, involves attaching a piece of plant material to the rootstock of another tree.

  7. Also known as girdling, this involves “removing a 3–6 mm ring of bark (down to the cambium) in a complete circle around the trunk or arms” (Agriculture Victoria 2017, no page).

  8. Although we have shown that mobility between farms is also valuable—so stability perhaps needs to be conceptualised at both the individual farm level, and at the crop level (i.e. working with the same crop over time on multiple farms).

  9. The NFF is seeking a visa that would differ fundamentally from the SWP by not tying each worker to one employer. Their proposed visa would, however, allow workers to return for three to five years to address farmers’ concerns “around having to train people every year—from scratch—during their busy harvest season” (Jasper et al. 2018, no page; NFF 2019).



Australian Bureau of Statistics


Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade


National Farmers’ Federation


Papua New Guinea


Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme


Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program


Seasonal Worker Programme


Temporary Migrant Worker Programmes


United Kingdom


United States of America


Working Holiday Maker


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The research reported on in this article was funded by an Australian Research Council Grant (DP140101165). The authors thank our numerous research participants in the Sunraysia region, our bilingual co-researchers, and the following organisations and groups for their involvement in this project: Robinvale Network House; Tree Minders, Robinvale; Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council; Mildura Twitezimbere Burundian Community Association; Hazara Community Association Mildura; and Food Next Door Co-operative. We gratefully acknowledge Tess Spaven, Paul Mbenna and Ikerne Aguirre Bielschowsky for providing research assistance.

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Correspondence to Natascha Klocker.

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Klocker, N., Dun, O., Head, L. et al. Exploring migrants’ knowledge and skill in seasonal farm work: more than labouring bodies. Agric Hum Values 37, 463–478 (2020).

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  • Horticulture
  • Skill
  • Seasonal farm work
  • Migrant farmworkers