The mind-numbing stupidity exhibited by this Labour Government is on full display in the horticulture and viticulture sectors right now but, unlike the leverage that the Greens had over the disastrous Taranaki oil and gas decision-making, this one can be fully attributed to the Labour Government alone.

Cast your mind back just four weeks:

Severe labour shortages on Hawke’s Bay apple orchards are forcing some smaller growers to only pick their fruit once a week during peak season.

Orchard owners have been fearing labour shortages for months as the peak picking season approaches.

Mr Yummy apples grower and owner Paul Paynter said he was leaving fruit on large trees that were difficult to pick and some trees would only get picked once rather than two or three times.

The problem rests with ideology, not practical reality. The government is putting the current labour shortages down to the growers not adapting. 

In a pre-covid world, the horticulture and viticulture sectors built their operations on the basis of certainty of labour supply. There were two main streams of labour: backpackers, and more importantly, RSE workers from the Pacific, the big three providers being Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. 

Before the RSE program started some 14 years ago, initiated incidentally by the Clark government, a lot of growers and larger outfits scaled down their businesses to suit the limited labour supply.

Once the RSE gained traction, many growers upscaled, secure in the knowledge that they would have the necessary hands to harvest what they planted. That resulted in greater investment, including from overseas, and considerable expansion of operations in Hawke’s Bay not only in greater hectarage of trees, but also in state of the art, large scale packhouses which provide employment for a great number of locals.

Paynter said it was even worse for owner-operator orchards.

“The big corporates like us have HR departments and are relatively sophisticated, but the smaller growers really suffer. They’re really struggling because they’re only picking on Sunday and they’re not picking the rest of the week.

That is a fair comment made by Paynter in early March – a few weeks into the apple harvest. 

A casual inspection of apple trees around Hawke’s Bay sees many varieties that should be off the trees by now. Each variety takes a few weeks to pick.

While the “big corporates” do have more room to move, the impact is that they too struggle to fulfill export orders and contractual obligations. 

“Some pickers are picking for everybody else (corporates) for six days and only going to them on Sundays. So they can’t find people … they aren’t getting anyone coming through the doors,” he said.

Every grower and packhouse around the region has signs up advertising work. One company even got creative and offered locals who came to work in their packhouse two weekly draws for $400 in lotto tickets. This has provided some results and well done to the locals for turning up, but the word around town is that the government’s programme to entice workers only netted something like 54 workers NATIONWIDE.

What hope is there for the little guy who faces a fading gate sign and an orchard full of yellowing apples?

About now there should be some 11,000 RSE workers in the country picking the fruit.  The Government has allowed in only a total of 2,000. While this is offset a little by a significant number of last season’s RSE workers still being in the country due to COVID-19 border restrictions, the actual shortfall is still between 5 and 8,000.

Paynter said the region needs several thousand more workers to handle the peak crop in early April.

He alone needs 140 more workers, and said it was almost too late now for a crisis to be averted, and growers could only do their best.

Sadly the region did not get the workers.

The die is cast. The government incentives that were offered were generous but they haven’t worked.

NZ Herald

Paynter is too generous with his words there. Where have we heard incentives like that before?  Do you remember when Ardern and Woods killed off oil and gas exploration and then did a roadshow promising millions in incentives to Taranaki? In this case, the incentive is $350k. 

A $350,000 support package for the hard hit horticultural sector has been announced by Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor.

Chump change when the industry stands to lose $600 million to 1 billion from the provincial economy.

The package will go towards addressing the labour crisis that has crippled fruit growers this season, as well as contributing towards wellbeing training programmes.

Oh, that will help – NOT. 

Is “wellbeing training program” the new term for “redundancy change management?” That will be of huge benefit to the bankrupt small grower and to packhouse staff who have nothing to pack and are made redundant. [sarcasm]

However, political party ACT has attacked the relief fund as a slap in the face for a sector that faces losses of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The joint initiative between the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry for Social Development will initially offer the wellbeing training to growers in Hawke’s Bay, but it will be extended to Gisborne, Tasman and Central Otago. It is expected to kick-off in April.

Better extend that to the kiwifruit growers in the Bay of Plenty and Northland too.  Something like 5,000 RSE workers normally descend on that region about now. They don’t need wellbeing training, they need pickers and packers. 

“I understand it’s challenging at the moment. The pandemic has led to national workforce issues and orchardists down south have suffered crop losses caused by weather events,” said O’Connor.

No, you don’t understand, Damien. But I do note how you prop your argument up with the COVID crutch. 

Don’t go lumping weather related flood damage with workforce issues. The tragic crop losses down south were caused by heavy rain which destroyed four years of small orchardists’ lives, turning their young orchards into rivers.

That was outside the government’s control and relief for them is deserved, but the Hawke’s Bay situation IS of the government’s making

For a self-proclaimed ex-orchardist, Damien O’Connor seems to have a short memory of what it takes to get an apple off a tree.

To be continued…

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Labour Can Take Full Credit for This Disaster: Part One
The BFD Staff

The BFD Staff

A contribution from The BFD staff.