Orchards gearing up for influx of DIY pickers amid horticultural worker shortage

The labour shortage could mean fewer strawberries on supermarket shelves this year.
The labour shortage could mean fewer strawberries on supermarket shelves this year. Photo credit: Getty

Strawberry farms are expecting more Kiwis to pick their own berries this season, as the horticultural industry faces a worker shortage due to COVID-19.

New Zealand depends on a large migrant workforce to help out with seasonal work in the industry, but with the country's borders closed the sector is preparing for a tough season ahead.

Darien McFadden, owner of Whatawhata Berry Farm near Hamilton, says the worker shortage could mean less strawberries on supermarket shelves this year.

He is preparing for more Kiwis to get out and pick their own berries.

"There's tens of thousands of offshore workers not allowed into the country at the moment and that's a significant challenge to work through," McFadden told Rural today's Magic Talk on Friday.

"We're very pleased and lucky and glad that we've got Whatawhata and got an opportunity for the public to get in and pick their own and not have to rely on that shortage - but there's a lot of concern out there and big moves been made to try and counter that and I think it's going to come down to Kiwis supporting Kiwis."

He said this year's crop is of "exceptional quality" and despite the COVID-19-related challenges, strawberries are highly sought after in the export market.

"There are some challenges on the board but we need to be optimistic and positive," he said.

McFadden says the worst of the labour shortage will be felt in November or December when most berry farms and commercial orchards "hit their flush", "but strawberries and asparagus are the spring crops that are first out the gate so to speak and we're due to experience that shortfall of staff early".

"It couldn't come at a worse time."

Although the shortage could lead to fewer strawberries on supermarket shelves, McFadden says Kiwis can make the most of the situation by picking their own.

"If you're looking for something to do, to get your kids off the social media, get them off the Playstation - get them into a nice healthy outdoor pursuit, they can run around the orchards, see a working orchard and play and go home with a boot-load of fresh glorious strawberries."