As the fruit harvest season nears, orchardists are again raising the alarm of an impending worker shortage. So will enough of us head to the country this summer to pick Central Otago’s crop?
Every year I said it would be my last. Every year I came crawling back.
From the age of 14, I spent a decade of summers picking stone fruit under the searing Central Otago sun. I was fortunate to have been born into the iPod generation, but all of the audiobooks on Napster couldn’t stave off the boredom of fruit picking. Working 7am to 4pm seven days a week atop a shuddering Hydralada would put me into fatigue-induced stupor that enveloped every summer of my youth. The only reprieve was the sound of rain on the corrugated iron roof that signalled a long awaited day off.
But for a teenager working at a time when youth rates meant the minimum wage was a little over $7 an hour, the pay was unbeatable. On a good day I could make over $30 an hour and working for six weeks during university holidays would be enough to keep me in Hollandias year-round. Working alongside backpackers from around the world also brought me invaluable contact with a life beyond the mountains of Clyde and provided an education in itself.
And my fate was nothing compared to what the out-of-town students and backpackers had to endure. While I left work to a home-cooked meal and my own bed, they would be staying four to a room in a cinderblock bunkhouse, with no escape from the shell-shock inducing booms of the bird scaring guns.
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Looking back I still idealise those summers as a Central Otago rite of passage and remain grateful for the work (thanks Bill and Cathy). I would chose working beneath a cherry tree over being hunched over a checkout counter any day. But it is a hard sell to the average New Zealander.
So when Covid-19 sent the backpackers packing I wasn’t alone in wondering who would pick the country’s fruit.
This time last year, orchardists began warning of an impending “nightmare harvest”, where fruit would be left to rot on the trees due to a lack of workers. Mike Hosking declared New Zealanders were simply too lazy to pick. However, when I called local orchardists here in Clyde last year, all of them were turning prospective pickers away. They already had enough workers signed up for the harvest – although there was concern about whether they would turn up.
In the end a lack of workers wasn’t the problem. On New Year’s Day, as the season was in full swing, it started raining and didn’t stop for days. The cherry crop was ruined. Droves of workers who came out to pick were sent away.
Panmure Orchards manager Jeremy Hiscock says it was unreal. The orchard was able to get enough pickers for the harvest, but the rain cracked the cherries and the neighbouring Fraser River burst its banks.
“The whole orchard got flooded,” Hiscock says. “I had two feet water in my cherry block.”
Now the pressure is now on to bring in a bumper harvest to make up for last year and headlines warning of an impending worker shortage have started again. So will New Zealanders up sticks en masse for a summer working in the trees once more?
Hiscock says he is “cautiously optimistic” the answer is yes.
I started my orcharding career at Panmure Orchards when I was 14, driving an ageing two-stroke motorbike up and down the rows to scare the birds. I soon graduated to the packing shed where I was responsible for loading cherries onto a conveyor belt for eight hours a day. For weeks I would see cherries scrolling past whenever I closed my eyes.
The orchard needs about 120 staff through the season and Hiscock says it already has enough pickers signed up for the harvest and for the fruit thinning already underway. But he is still concerned about whether everyone on the books will show up.
“We are on the roller coaster now. In October it was looking disastrous, but then the inquiries started flowing in. The influx of Kiwis trying orchard work has been awesome.”
Hiscock says the orchard has also been an unexpected beneficiary of Auckland’s Covid-19 lockdown, with a number of workers coming from the city because orchard staff are classed as essential workers.
“That’s enabled us to complete our base tasks for the season, but everybody has had to cut their cloth to suit the pool of labour. People have had to remove low-performing blocks of fruit so they can concentrate labour on their best blocks.”
Across the fence at Strode Road Orchard, owner Lochie McNally also has enough pickers signed up for the coming season.
“We finished recruiting about three weeks ago and have had a lot students and a few backpackers and locals sign up, which is good. We’re definitely happy where we are sitting at the moment.”
Formerly Forests Orchard, this is where I spent my summers picking and thinning fruit. McNally says the orchard has upgraded the accommodation from the cinderblock bunkhouse and has hired cabins to attract workers. He has also discounted the price of accommodation.
At nearby Clyde Orchards, there’s also no worker shortage yet. Manager Kris Robb says it needs 150 pickers for the harvest and has 160 signed up, but he is still nervous.
“On paper it’s looking pretty good, but a lot of orchards have a lot of backpackers on their lists and given there are so few backpackers left in the country there is a risk of duplication. We had 60 people signed up to start thinning this morning but only 45 have shown up.”
About a third of the prospective pickers are overseas backpackers who have extended their visas to stay in the country. The rest are high school and university students.
He says a lot of work has gone into attracting staff and making picking fruit in Central Otago more desirable to New Zealand workers.
“We’ve had to change our mentality. We were predominantly set up for backpackers in self-contained vans and that demographic has changed so we have had to get more cabins and huts and we are constantly improving our facilities. We’ve also secured a house in Alexandra to accommodate staff. It’s not the Hilton, but it’s good affordable accommodation.
“We are also finding the reason people come here is about lifestyle, so we’ve been looking at having activities and events for staff.”
The orchard fields sports teams in local competitions and has developed deals with tourism operators in the area to encourage workers to explore Central Otago. Industry body Summerfruit NZ has also developed a “crew card” which gives orchard workers discounts at local shops.
Because of these efforts, Robb says a large portion of workers have signed up to come back for a second season.
Government and the local council have also developed schemes to encourage NZ pickers. The government’s Seasonal Work Scheme gives workers money for transport and clothing and other work-related costs. Workers are also eligible for a $200 a week accommodation payment and a $1000 bonus if they stay for six weeks or more. MSD said they’d paid out “almost $1 million” to 550 workers under the scheme and 7,557 people had gone off the benefit into seasonal work over the past year. Central Otago District Council has a marketing campaign showcasing the region as a good place to work and travel.
Despite having enough pickers signed up for summer, there was a pervading anxiety among the orchard owners that workers wouldn’t show up and a golden harvest could go unpicked. But with Covid-19 likely to depress the backpacker market for years to come, those worries may be a reality for some time as finding workers becomes an annual struggle for the industry.
Summerfruit NZ chief executive Kate Hellstrom says there will never be enough workers living in Central Otago for the harvest. The district’s population is just 21,000 and has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, but about 6000 workers are needed for the harvest. There are also more orchards being planted, so the need will only grow and attracting workers from outside of the region will be an ongoing focus.
“We don’t expect to suddenly return to 2019 employment conditions and we are thinking really carefully as an industry about what that might mean and how we adapt to the future,” Hellstrom says. “A lot of work has gone into appropriate accommodation and being flexible for different groups – students, retirees and working parents. There’s also work going into how technology might help in the future, having growing systems where people can pick more easily. So the work is underway as to how we can adapt long term to a changing workforce.”
But if New Zealanders are already signing up to pick in sufficient numbers, is talk of a worker shortage overblown?
“I think the concerns are genuine,” Hellstrom says. “I don’t think you’d find one employer who has full confidence they are going to have all the staff they need right through the harvest. They’ve been putting a lot of work into promoting the region and to get pickers to return, and growers are saying they’re going to be OK while they’ve got students, but for the later fruit there’s a real concern.”
Beyond a potential worker shortage is the looming prospect of a Covid outbreak. The region has largely been Covid-free throughout the pandemic, but an outbreak could put people off coming to work and hamper the harvest.
All of the orchards I spoke to required staff in the packing sheds to be fully vaccinated and some required all staff to be double-jabbed. But there’s only so much that can be done to prepare.
“We’re dealing with a perishable that needs to be packed and dispatched quickly,” Robb says. “To have a 14-day shutdown in the middle of a cherry season would be catastrophic.”
Like so much of the horticulture industry, the fate of the harvest is in the hands of the gods.
But if needed, I think even I would come crawling back to help with one more season in the trees.