Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association lament labour shortages caused by COVID-19 as fruit left to rot

The Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association says its "heartbreaking" fruit has been left to rot due to labour shortages caused by COVID-19.  

Low worker numbers have seen harvesting down 15 percent - with unpicked fruit rotting on the trees.

Graeme Hodges from the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association told AM on Tuesday it's the worst season he's seen in years but is still proud of workers.

"The labour shortage has certainly been exacerbated by the prevalence of COVID amongst the teams. As an industry, it's sort of our duty of care to make sure that our staffers are as safe as they can be," he told AM co-host Bernadine Oliver-Kerby.  

"So we sort of left no stone unturned, anything that looked somewhat symptomatic, the teams were told to stay home." 

Hodges said labour shortages have affected all areas of the team from pickers through to truck drivers. 

"I probably haven't seen some of the private growers look so glum as they did in the season just gone and it's fair enough. It's been on the back of three very tough years, but you know that old Kiwi adage we just sort of grin and bear it, but this year we can't hide the results and they're out there hanging on the tree," he said. 

"We didn't necessarily have enough people and sadly, COVID's affected us all and I guess those of us who were lucky enough to get the fruit off the trees, it's been really hard post-harvest as well because we're short of truck drivers. We're short of trucks. 

"It's been an impact on the entire nation, just ours is a little bit more visible now that we've got into winter and our leaves are on the ground." 

Hodges said it's heartbreaking they had to make tough decisions to leave the fruit to rot because they didn't have enough staff to get to everything. 

"Look, it's heartbreaking, we are sort of putting ourselves to the grind for 364 days just to have that one shot to harvest that fruit, and it's heartbreaking, not just for us as growers, but for our teams," he said. 

"We've got a lot of incredibly good people that have put in a whole heap of mahi in to get the fruit to that stage and for us to have to make decisions, to leave that behind because we simply can't get to it is heartbreaking for us." 

Hodges said the solution to the problem was employing more staff but a lack of housing means that isn't possible. 

"I think the reality is the alternative was getting more people in and I think we all know that there's another social issue out there, which is lack of housing," he told AM.

"So, it's nice for us to jump up and down and tell everyone to come to Hawke's Bay, Nelson or Central Otago with our main apple-growing regions, but if the places aren't there to accommodate them, what do we do? 

"That's the hard part as we'd love to get in there, but we've got to get this fruit at a marketable spec as well. So by that I mean, it needs to have the right bricks. It needs to be the right pressure. There is nothing worse than biting into a floury apple, but even worse of it as it tastes like cider when you bite into it." 

Watch the full interview with Graeme Hodges above.