Leaders of the Hawke’s Bay apple industry called it ‘game over’ at a media conference today (April 7).
Words like ‘powerless’, ‘go mad’, ‘cannabalising’, ‘blunder’, ‘absenteeism’ and ‘carnage’ were used to describe the situation apple growers have faced in Hawke’s Bay over the harvesting season that is effectively now over.
Fruit that hasn’t been picked, won’t be – this season is ‘game over’, with losses from the apple industry alone throughout the growing regions estimated at $600 million by Alan Pollard, NZ Apples and Pears CEO. Total losses across horticulture and wine could exceed $1 billion.
Individual growers – from the big corporates to small growers – told a common story, all grounded in the inability to find local labour to replace the thousands of overseas workers (both Pacific Islander RSE workers and backpackers) who normally carry the industry through its harvesting season.
John Bostock – “never had a full packhouse”.
Paul Paynter – “25% apples not picked, against 15% higher wages”. He noted that the region would move backward for the first time in over a decade in terms of permanent jobs if production remained constrained and growers pulled back in the face of uncertainty.
Bruce Mitchell – “the best Gala apples I’ve grown just rot on the ground”. He spoke of the emotion strain on growers powerless in the face of circumstances they couldn’t control.
The fallout from the apple growers’ shortage has had flow-on effects, with more to come.
Bruce Mackay, Watties Agriculture Manager, spoke of disrupted production lines, caused by both skilled labour shortages, absenteeism (perhaps as workers shifted to harvesting jobs), and suppressed production volume. One wonders how much under-performance or unpredictability an overseas conglomerate will tolerate from its remote outpost.
And Craig Hickson, Progressive Meats founder, described the labour shortages at meat works as the worst he’s seen in 40 years (again, with some workers lured away by the orchardists’ vigorous advertising campaigns).
Clearly these folks felt the Government could have done more to address the Covid-induced shortage – for example, a belief that the Government over-estimated the willingness or availability of Kiwis to take up these jobs, which would have required significant relocation and personal upheaval, and exacerbated housing issues, to meet a short-term need.
But despite the depth of emotional strain and economic loss, the rhetoric was rather restrained because all are well-aware that they must secure stepped up planning and responsiveness from this same Government to avoid a repeat of the overseas shortage next season.
Two things seem clear out of this rotting mess.
One is that overseas workers remain mission critical for our growers. Unless someone decides to deliberately cap the region’s economic growth, there’s no way around the natural seasonal peaking of the industries on which the region’s economic well-being is grounded. Bostock commented: “With such low unemployment rates, there are not enough New Zealanders available for work. We’ve created tens of thousands of permanent full-time jobs through the RSE Scheme and without seasonal workers the fabric of our communities is at risk. We cannot continue to operate on a knife edge.”
Two, that the Government needs to absorb the lessons of this season quickly and with certainty. As Pollard noted: “We cannot have a repeat of what has occurred this season. We estimate that we need at least 21 weeks from a government decision to the time that the workers need to be deployed, so there is real urgency to find a workable alternative solution.”
Tick … tick … tick!