The apple industry is pleading for help as thousands of tonnes of fruit go to waste, devastating growers.

Due to a severe labour shortage, huge volumes of apples have been left on trees this season and the industry is predicting losses of more than $600 million to provincial economies.

Stuff

Recall the Apple and Pear prediction that there would be a $95 million to $100m fall in export earnings? Just like building a skypath on the Harbour Bridge, or getting a light rail trainset up and running; the figure has blown out 6 times.

Small orchardist and exporter Bruce Mitchell’s family has been in the industry for more than 50 years.

That is longer than the number of years the Labour Party has been in Government in total.

This season he left six blocks of royal gala apples on the trees due to a lack of pickers.

“It is so devastating to see the best gala apples I have grown just rot on the ground because we did not have anyone to pick them. “I was desperate and did everything I could to find people to harvest the apples but on the day we started I was expecting 20 pickers and only two people turned up, so we physically could not pick 40 per cent of the gala crop.”

That is a typical result that people do not understand and why the RSE program is loved. When you have 20 RSE workers, you get 20 to work on time, and loving their job. No matter how hard orchardists try, they cannot successfully find locals. Yet the mantra from the Government is the same, every year – “there are plenty of unemployed, you guys just have to go and get them.”

Mitchell is among hundreds of orchardists and exporters who have left export quality fruit on the trees or compromised quality with fruit not picked at the optimal time.

“We cannot continue to spend money on keeping our business alive without a guarantee of labour in the future. It is just not possible,” Mitchell said.

Orchardists and the big corporates are going into survival mode.

New Zealand Apples and Pears chief executive Alan Pollard said he was already aware of leases not being renewed, blocks being pulled out and not being replaced, and new tree orders being cancelled.

History repeats.  Look what happened with the Oil and Gas debacle. Big companies cancel exploration rights. The same as orchardists cancelling leases. (What a lot of city folk don’t realise is that many orchardists and crop growers lease land on short to medium term leases.) 

There is a long term crisis developing here. We have moved from a token “wellbeing training” government program worth $350m, to a potential loss of $600m-$1b. To blocks being pulled out. So if an orchardist like Bruce Mitchell pulls out his 6 Ha of Royal Gala and replants, then those 6 Ha do not get a significant return for 4 years, despite 4 years of tree management.  Some replanting is planned but without the guarantee of labour (and I mean RSE labour) the clock has been wound back 14 years.

In November, the heads of several industry groups made a submission to the Government for the return of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers to New Zealand.

The scheme usually allows 12,000 RSE workers into the country each year but that number had fallen to 7000 this year due to border closures.

Well no.  They allowed 2,000 in but were helped by the 5,000 still here.

The industry submission indicated potential direct losses of up to $1.1 billion and a labour deficit of 11,000 workers across horticulture and wine in March.

“Now that the harvest is at its peak these labour shortages are a reality and we are seeing devastating consequences for many growers and exporters, including a serious impact on mental health and resilience,” Pollard said.

Not good timing for the government, to mention the impact on mental health. 

“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.”

No, they cannot, and must not, have a repeat. Farming operations do not turn on a dime. Typically, getting a seasonal worker recruited from the Pacific and starting their work here in NZ takes at least 12 weeks. 

Organic apple grower and exporter John Bostock said Bostock New Zealand had “gone all out” and ran massive recruitment campaigns to try to recruit New Zealanders but the people just were not there.

Bostock said the impact endured this season had been foreseeable and avoidable, and the industry needed the Government to announce a plan for the return of RSE workers from Covid-free Pacific Island countries.

Everyone in the industry knew what would happen if they could not get their RSE workers in and being the good forecasters they are, they have been proven to be right.

“We urgently need a plan for 2022 to avoid the carnage we have seen this season. With such low unemployment rates, there are not enough New Zealanders available for work.

“We have created tens of thousands of permanent fulltime 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.”

Consider this. When you go past the packhouses around Hastings, there are two signs an experienced person notices. 

  1. The packhouse yards are full of untouched stacks of bins. Normally these by now are dwindling as they move through the orchard and packhouse system.
  2. You will be lucky to see a truck carrying bins in or cartons out of the packhouses.

Thousands of locals are employed in orchards and packhouses and with the transportation companies. The equation is simple. If the fruit is left to rot on the trees, then packhouses shut down shifts. That means less work for locals which raises unemployment. If we factor in the long term impacts of non-lease renewal, pulling trees out and – God forbid – foreclosures, then, as one grower said, the problem escalates exponentially.

ACT immigration spokesman Dr James McDowall said the lack of clarity for orchardists and the wider industry was taking a mental and economic toll on the sector, both in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

“Both groups are crying out for action. The Government was warned that its belief that local workers would replace RSE workers was unrealistic and so it proved to be.”

Growers urgently needed a plan for how many Pacific Island workers could come in and when.

“Orchard maintenance has suffered and decisions need to be made quickly or next season’s harvest will be negatively impacted, too.”

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said that having been a grower himself, he understood that small orchardists would be under extra stress due to the impacts of Covid-19.

Proof the dear Minister is not listening at all.

The Ministry for Primary Industries was working with the industry on a wellbeing support package, with details to be released in the coming week.

Rural Support Trusts were able to help rural people during difficult times, and were free and confidential, he said.

The Government had allocated up to an additional $1.2m to the trusts in response to Covid-19 and the 2020 drought, on top of baseline funding of $656,400.

Stuff

Yep, turn the growers into beneficiaries. Dare I say that Maduro tried something similar with Venezuelan farmers.  I worked with one once. His family was a wealthy farming one but when Socialism came in, it became impossible to farm and much more attractive to simply cave in and go on the benefit. Don’t expect $656,400 plus $1.2m to be the last. Expect 4 years of that if they do not fully open the RSE market again.

The signs though are not good. Already the Government has responded that it is likely to raise the quota “slightly” but not to pre COVID levels.  Given that 5,000 workers who had extended visas expire over the next 5 months, and the current batch of 2,000 workers return home at the end of their 7-month visas around August, leaving the growers with zero seasonal workers, a “slight increase” from 2,000 will be catastrophic.

The silver lining through this nightmarish experiment is that the government, in its inability to recruit sufficient locals to get off the couch and onto ladders in orchards, proves that the RSE scheme is indispensable, and every effort should be made to get the program up and running before next season starts. It cannot delay, and opening a quarantine-free bubble with COVID-free Pacific countries should be a priority.  It is the kindest and fairest thing that Ardern could do to our growers and our great Pacific neighbours.

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

The BFD Staff

A contribution from The BFD staff.