Jim Galloway, HB Federated Farmers

Our primary sector has faced labour shortages, drought and flood, pestilence and pandemic, supply chain and market access issues, and rising input costs. This most difficult of seasons has served up heaps of challenges. Here’s a cross-sector snapshot of the recent growing season. 

Fruit 

In mid-May, industry association New Zealand Apples and Pears (NZAPI) shaved 12% – or 2.9 million export boxes – off its crop forecast for the 2021-22 growing season, describing it as the most challenging in recent years. In Hawke’s Bay crop forecast numbers were even worse, down 15%. 

The east coast suffered from heavy rain in February and March; Gisborne had more than 530mm of rainfall during the season, and Hawke’s Bay 321mm. As a result Gisborne’s estimated crop is down 20% on pre-season predictions. 

An earlier BayBuzz article on the labour shortage noted that through the pandemic New Zealand has only had around 10% of its usual 50,000-strong migrant worker labour force. The pip fruit sector’s labour woes are not new, and growers regularly have to choose which apple varieties to pick. In a recent media article Napier grower Kelvin Taylor said “he had to leave 15% to 20% of his apple crop on the trees this year, with not enough hands available to pick the fruit”. 

NZAPI CEO Terry Meikle says a perfect storm of adverse weather events in key growing regions and major labour shortages during the heart of the harvest combined to result in growers not being able to maximise their crops. “It has been an incredibly difficult time for growers to manage their orchards, and the most challenging of harvests in recent years.” 

Craig Betty, director operations for listed company T&G Global, says it’s looking to be a tough season. 

“Weather was variable in our key apple growing regions, with Nelson and Otago’s favourable weather producing good sized apples with great colour, and the deluge of rain in the Hawke’s Bay proving challenging. As many global businesses will attest, Covid-19 continues to affect global supply chains, with a shortage of containers and shipping capacity, delays in some feeder ports, and varying levels of consumer demand due to lockdowns and Northern Hemisphere stock levels. On top of this, there’s workforce shortages.” 

Betty says that T&G is working incredibly hard to front-foot as many challenges as possible, including working closely with shipping partners, chartering six ships and collaborating with fellow horticultural exporters to co-ship produce to North America. 

“While labour shortages continue to affect us, some of our seasonal team have moved between regions to help our orchards out, and office-based colleagues have also pitched in. Without a doubt, our industry is under considerable pressure this season. With the apples now off the trees, we’re absolutely focused on packing and shipping our premium apples to customers and consumers around the globe,” he says. 

For blueberry grower Marian Hirst, partner in Bay Blue, the season has been one of the most difficult she has encountered, with yields down 10 to 15% and fruit quality affected. 

“Poor weather conditions over blossom affected fruit quality and volume. Some horticultural crops had blocks that were unable to be harvested. Fruit quality and decreased fruit size further impacted yields. Rain events over harvest resulted in some fruit splitting and a negative impact on fruit pressure – our team worked very hard to maintain the best possible quality.” 

Hirst is proud of her team, comprising long serving local employees, supported by very skilled RSE employees from Vanuatu, most of whom have been with her business for 8-12 years. 

The challenges were many, she says. “Labour shortages were further impacted by Covid, with employees either sick, isolating, or recovering and at risk of long Covid. Market access was impacted, fruit quality was at risk due to shipping delays, and if fruit could get offshore international markets were unstable. On top of this, compliance and costs escalated. The level of red tape is a heavy load for everybody.” 

Grape growers had a good spring and summer, and everything was in place for a “special year” from a fruit quality perspective, says Peter Hurlstone, deputy chair of Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers, who spoke to BayBuzz alongside Ian Quinn, grower and director of Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers. 

La Nina’s moist rainy conditions were expected, says Hurlstone. “Growers and wineries were well prepared by making sure canopies were nice and open, to give the fruit the best chance possible.” 

“Early season growing conditions were good, that put us in a good position to get fruit off earlier. But damp and humid conditions later created more disease pressure. Ideally winegrowers like to control the water they put on, as opposed to what’s dealt to from the clouds. Hot and dry is good for us, and this year there was hot, but there was more wet weather through harvest window itself,” says Hurlstone. 

There were concentrated periods (of fine weather) when we were trying to get different varieties of fruit off, says Quinn. “We had winemakers collaborating on hand picks. This was more pronounced this year with the labour pressures and (weather) windows available. And certainly around machine harvesting, we organised machines to pick multiple winemaker’s wines.” 

Predictions are that the Hawke’s Bay grape harvest will be close to average, with very good quality, says Hurlstone. “Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot harvests were good with some fantastic wines made out of vintage 2022.” 

Labour has been an issue for some time, exacerbated by Covid. There is increasing competition for labour. The wineries and growers have shown resilience and been very resourceful, says Hurlstone. “There’s been a lot more collaboration and sharing … working together to get everything in that we need to.” 

Quinn says Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers did a lot of work last season, pulling together an accurate picture of what was required to run the sector this year, highlighting the (labour) gap and collaborating with NZ Winegrowers as it worked with other industry bodies across the primary sector to increase RSE numbers. 

Trading conditions have been more challenging, says Hurlstone, “I think the positive is that there is very good demand for Hawke’s Bay wine and New Zealand wine. 

“For those people who are focussed primarily on-premise and the more niche outlets, business has been a lot harder. Cellar door sales have been impacted the past 18 months. It’s been tough for that part of the business,“ concludes Hurlstone. 

Leading into the current season, growers had a good run with Quinn describing 2019-2021 as “dream vintages”. He noted Trinity Hill’s recent win for the top Chardonnay in the world, and some of the other successes for Hawke’s Bay wines in the past few years “should really help us to slightly buffer some of the difficulties.” 

Meat & veggies 

Federated Farmers Hawke’s Bay president Jim Galloway, says that the growing season has been a mixed bag. The Hawke’s Bay chapter covers farmers located in Hastings District and Central Hawke’s Bay, and spans cropping, meat and wool, and dairy operations. 

“Early season growing conditions were favourable with very good yields for processed vegetables, sweet corn, peas and beans,” says Galloway. 

“But with the very dry January, peas shrivelled up and almost died. Staff shortages at the processors meant that not all crops could be taken, with some shipments being bypassed.” 

Bypassing of shipments is common, Galloway says. For example if the pick sits too long before transport, it won’t meet quality standards. In those situations the waste is ploughed in, made into silage, or fed to stock. 

“February’s wet weather upset beans quite badly. In some parts of some paddocks where it got wet, beans drowned, and yields reduced markedly.” 

Galloway says that his patch got lucky: “lots of rain, but not too much.” 

Further rain in March brought weather-related disease to beans. A lot of the cereal crop was harvested before February’s rain, and the crop was quite reasonable. Where harvest was delayed it got quite difficult with a drop in yield and quality. 

Galloway says that most farmers produce a range of crops, and that diversity offers protection, compared to an apple orchard. 

The labour shortages are having an impact, with farmers taking up the slack themselves. “Farmers aren’t currently working on their businesses, they’re working in them. They’re not doing the planning, the thinking, the big picture stuff. That’s gone down because they don’t have the time to do it. Combine that with isolating due to Covid and losing the normal outlets for contact with people; it’s been really hard for everyone,” says Galloway. 

As for pastoral farmers, Galloway says that venison is doing far better than a year ago. “That took a massive dive because most venison was sold to the restaurant trade. They’ve had to pivot; selling to supermarkets and direct to consumer. It’s on the rebound.” 

Lamb and beef prices have been very good. Lamb numbers are down following two years of drought, says Galloway. “Ewes were not in good condition going into the breeding season, and farmers had been dropping ewe numbers. The lambs were slow to get away (grow) in the spring due to the wet and cold, and the killing season started later, timed with peak Omicron. 

“The rain that fell in February and again in March, gave Hawke’s Bay pastoral farmers a get out of jail card. We had the feed, so it meant we could hold the animals. It was a real saviour for us.” 

Labour shortages at the freezing works and shipping delays and unreliability have resulted in a loss of value for farmers, says Galloway; there’s more frozen product as opposed to higher value fresh, and less value-added cuts. 

And while commodity prices are on the rise, and a weaker NZ dollar is helping, on-farm inflation is rampant. “Prices look good, income looks good, but expenditure has gone up, so we haven’t got the profit that we might have got otherwise.” 

Processing 

Downstream of harvest hasn’t been easy either, with general staffing shortages and Covid disruptions all impacting. In January, food manufacturer Wattie’s was on a mission to recruit 150 people to support its annual harvest, and rival manufacturer McCains reportedly reduced daily shifts from three to two, due to labour shortages. 

Later in the season, rain had a major impact on Wattie’s, says Neil Heffer managing director, Wattie’s. “Some of Hawke’s Bay’s heaviest rainfall occurred during crop harvest. Not surprisingly, the rain caused major disruption creating wet and muddy conditions for most of the season as well as impacting some crop yields. This took its toll on both our people and machinery. 

“Luckily, these events were well anticipated so we were prepared as much as we could be, but these challenges did impact what would have been an outstanding season across the board. 

“Despite this, we saw some new crop records set this season and we’re proud of our team and growers for pushing through these challenges. We look forward to finishing the last of our harvesting in the next few weeks and taking everything we have learnt into next season,” concluded Heffer. 

Napier Port’s half year result reflects the challenges faced by the primary sector, with the company noting that ongoing seasonal labour shortages and an escalation in global shipping disruptions have created challenges for all parts of the supply chain – customers, ports, shippers, carriers, and agents. 

Digging deeper, half year trade volume data paints a sorry picture – down across the board – with apple and pear TEU (20 foot equivalent unit) down 40%, meat down 20%, wood pulp and timber down 12%, canned and other down 25%, other dry down 17%, compared to the prior year’s first half. 

All told, the growing and harvest season 21-22 will go down as one of the toughest in recent memory. Grower resilience has been tested. 2022 has been about survival, making the best of it, working with others to share resources to get through, and dealing with Mother Nature. 

The achievements of our primary sector are due to the guts and determination of our rural people. And while no-one can predict the future, let’s hope for all our sakes that the worst is behind them. 

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