Dame Susan Devoy tries her hand at kiwifruit packing

It is estimated that the primary sector will need around 50,000 more people post-COVID-19.
It is estimated that the primary sector will need around 50,000 more people post-COVID-19. Photo credit: Getty

While many of us spent our lockdown overeating and watching ridiculous amounts of Netflix, one famous New Zealander opted to use the time to try something a little different.

Squash legend and former Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy spent two weeks packing kiwifruit in Katikati, in a move she says helped get her "mojo back".

Dame Susan decided to try the job to avoid growing lazy during lockdown and to meet new people, she said.

"I met many ordinary New Zealanders working in extraordinary circumstances.

"One was a mature couple in their 70s who joined the harvest every year, my floor supervisor worked two jobs to support her family, there was a newly-wed tourist couple who were meant to work in the ski fields and a group from Taiwan whose plans were disrupted by coronavirus."

The former world champion clocked up 110 hours of work at the Apata Packhouse in Katikati, and says she was treated like any other employee during her time there.

"I could tell that people who recognised me were wondering what on earth I was doing there. Some thought I was doing undercover research, while some didn't know who I was at all and I didn't mind that," Dame Susan said.

"That's the great thing about the industry, there's no special treatment."

Stuart Weston, Apata Packhouse managing director, said it was great having Dame Susan working as part of the team.

"She handled packing like a champ," Weston said. 

"She is hardcore, a straight shooter with a real sense of humour, proving that fifties are the new twenties."

Dame Susan worked 12-hour packing shifts for 10 days.
Dame Susan worked 12-hour packing shifts for 10 days. Photo credit: Supplied

Dame Susan, 56, worked 12-hour packing shifts for 10 days. And while the former athlete is no stranger to physical exercise, she said it was tiring work.

"While I am a hard worker, the days can be tough and long and by the end of your shift, you're pretty knackered. In hindsight, the work isn't as bad as I thought it was.

"It was definitely a learning experience for me and everyone else in the family; one of my sons learnt how to use the washing machine, for example, and dinner had to be ready by the time I got home from my shift."

Dame Susan's experience comes as the Government moves to encourage people who have lost their jobs in other sectors to look for work in industries like horticulture.

With the country's borders effectively closed due to COVID-19, many industries are struggling to replace jobs that would otherwise be filled by migrant workers. 

It is estimated that the primary sector will need around 50,000 more people in the post-COVID-19.

In the Budget released last week, the Government allocated $19.3 million to attract and retrain people recently unemployed with the aim of growing the primary sector workforce by 10,000.

Dame Susan encouraged those interested in trying their luck in a packhouse to jump on in.

"There's always work available in the industry and I think flexibility and a stronger focus on mental health is key to getting more of the local workforce involved. I had a quick packing induction but most of the learning was done on the job," she said. 

"With packing, you need to be fast and consistent, but when mistakes were made help wasn't too far away and there were plenty of old hands to help when needed."

All in all, she said it was a great experience and worth the effort.

"My experience in the packhouse was a catalyst for getting my mojo back. I've realised I'm too young to retire and now I'm looking for my next challenge. 

"What would I do if I got a call back to do kiwifruit work? I'd have to cross that bridge when it comes."