Grower warns Kiwis to pay more for produce as Pacific RSEs 'nowhere near enough' to meet labour shortage

Produce growers have been anxiously waiting to see if recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers would still be allowed into the country given the current Delta outbreak.

On Friday, the Government announced workers from Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu would be able to come into New Zealand quarantine-free from next month.

But one grower says that's still not enough, warning the labour shortage will result in Kiwis paying more for fruit and veg.

Apple blossoms are a sign of fruit coming to life. While it's a pretty picture, the situation with the lack of horticulture workers is anything but.

"We'll make a substantial loss this year, and mental health amongst the growers and indeed morale in our own workforce is pretty low," says Yummy Fruit Co's Paul Paynter.

Paynter says RSE workers usually make up one-third of the staff, with the rest backpackers and Kiwis. But the pandemic means no backpackers - and it's harder to get New Zealanders to do seasonal work.

On Friday the Government confirmed we'll be welcoming in seasonal workers from Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga from next month, provided they've had their first vaccination.

"The RSEs will be welcomed but it will be nowhere near enough for the industry. We still have a crisis in front of us," says Paynter.

Emmanuel Roslyn from Vanuatu is stoked to be making his way to Aotearoa.

"The money that I earned in New Zealand and brought back to Vanuatu helped us a lot. It helped with the kids' school fees," he said.

His boss, organic apple producer John Bostock, is grateful RSE workers can fly in. But he says the Government hasn't given him numbers on how many will be coming.

"If we don't know the number of people it makes it extremely difficult planning our harvesting, planning our packing and planning our shipping."

The labour shortage has created huge stress for growers, some of who have given up and left the industry altogether.

There have been a couple of growers I know of who have sold their orchards," said Paynter. 

They've said the toll on their family and their personal life has been too high.

It comes as there's more demand for healthy food, with lockdown seeing more of us eat at home.

"If we couldn't get enough workers to harvest the crops there would be shortage of some vegetable types and some fruit types in the supermarket," said Bostock.

Paynter says prices will definitely go up.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says RSE workers are crucial to our economy.

"The horticulture sector is worth $6 billion to New Zealand's exports. Having people coming to our shores through the RSE scheme to harvest and prune is essential.

And for those like Roslyn, the fruits of his labour are literally life-changing.