Extra hands needed for Otago cherry harvest

An extra 1000 seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands are helping orchardists in Central Otago turn their ripe cherries into red gold.

The peak of the cherry harvest is underway, with workers looking to pick and pack as much fruit as possible for the Chinese New Year.

More than 300 pickers are hard at work at the country's largest cherry exporter in Cromwell.

45 South manager and Summerfruit NZ chairman Tim Jones is keen to ensure a maximum harvest, in what's already been a great season for the industry.

"So even though summer has been a little bit remiss and we haven't had too many sunny days like we've got today, we've got a good crop on the trees and we're picking good volumes," he says.

Around 70 percent of the country's cherries head overseas.

"I think it's a growing demand with increasing wealth in China in particular. That's really the market we're seeing take off," Mr Jones says.

Export growers can receive $30 a kilogram, with premium fruit selling for $1 a cherry at the other end.

The increase in cherry exports requires more staff to pick and pack the fruit.

The Government recently increased the cap on a scheme bringing in Pacific Island workers to help ease labour shortages for the fruit and wine industries.

"It's given them certainty that they are going to have good workers - good well-trained workers - to pick the crop on the days that they need them," says Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean.

More than 10,000 Pacific Islanders now come here each year under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, many moving between different fruit harvests for work.

"That allows the growers to grow their business, plant new orchards and vineyards, which in turn provides fulltime and permanent jobs predominantly for New Zealanders," says Seasonal Solutions chief executive Helen Axby.

And with New Zealand fruit commanding a premium price overseas, there's confidence those new markets will continue to bear fruit.