Labour shortage means 'a heck of a challenging season' coming for farmers

June 1 marks the start of the new dairy season.
June 1 marks the start of the new dairy season. Photo credit: Getty

With hundreds of jobs needing to be filled before moving day on June 1, dairy farmers around the country could be in for a tough time.

Usually, many farm jobs would be filled by migrant workers, but with the country's borders closed due to COVID-19 the dairy sector is now struggling to fill around 1000 vacancies.

"It's certainly a big number," Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor told Rural Exchange on Sunday. 

With other industries around the country seeing thousands of jobs cut, O'Connor said it was a unique situation to be in for the sector. 

"I guess it's a good space to be in compared to many industries that are going to have to be laying off many people. Our challenge is to bring the people over from other industries and offer them not just a job but a career in dairy," he said.

"That would be potentially a wonderful outcome from what is a pretty savage situation at the moment."

June 1 marks the first day of the new dairy season, with a large number of people moving to different farms to start new employment and milking contracts. A number of dairy cows are also moved to greener pastures ready for winter grazing. 

There were worries the day could be impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, but last month O'Connor confirmed it would go ahead as planned.

Although job openings ahead of the new season may seem like a positive, Benjamin De' Ath, managing director of immigration law company the Regions, says the vacancies are just one more problem for dairy farmers to overcome.

"Those thousand-odd vacancies, it's going to be a really tough card," De' Ath told Rural Exchange. "It's going to be a tight labour market."

De' Ath said work done by the Government so far providing subsidies for employers taking on workers from other industries and placing them in junior roles on farms was a good start.

"I think that's very important in a dairy context," he said.

"Farming is a challenging and a unique profession and if someone's coming over from hospitality or tourism it is a fair commitment from an employer to train them up from scratch."

Despite the subsidies, however, he was pessimistic the situation could be fixed in time to have a real effect.

"Those 1000 vacancies coming into this season will not be filled - I'd be doing backflips if the market could fill half of them. Even that would be naive to think that's going to occur before calving." 

Even if the positions could be filled quickly, he said, training people up takes time.

"The water's not going to travel under that bridge at the levels we need prior to calving. So yeah, a heck of challenging season coming up for the farming sector and there will be a lot of farms short-staffed."

Although technically, the jobs could be filled by New Zealanders, De' Ath said it was more realistic for migrant workers to fill the positions, as they generally have fewer ties and are more willing to move to where work is available. 

But with the borders closed, the challenge now was for migrants work-visa holders from other sectors to be able to transfer their work permits and make the move into dairy. 

"We can't deliver any direct certainty to the displaced migrant workforce or farming sector, but on the whole we're making progress dealing with immigration - and it meets the common sense test, which is why I think these people will eventually be allowed to move jobs and move regions," De' Ath said.

In the meantime, though the situation is bringing more headaches for farmers already struggling, it could bring opportunity for New Zealanders up for a change of career and lifestyle.

"Even if we do get pleasantly surprised by the number of Kiwis willing to try a new career at short notice, it's still not going to come close to filling those numbers of vacancies.

"We will get through this, it's just going to be a challenging little while in front of us."