Hit hard by lack of tourism, central Otago now faces threat from horticultural labour shortage

With central Otago's tourism industry reeling in the wake of COVID-19, there are concerns a worker shortage in the horticulture sector could cause even more economic hardship for the region.

The area is one of the country's main cherry growing regions but there are concerns fruit may be left on the trees to rot if pickers can't be found.

"People are pretty stressed," says Richard Palmer, chief executive of Summerfruit New Zealand. 

The horticulture sector relies heavily on foreign recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers, but with the country's borders closed due to COVID-19 thousands of positions need to be filled for the upcoming harvest season.

Palmer said the summerfruit industry had been working "pretty hard now for nearly six months" to address the labour shortage, and though there were workers up to early December there were concerns after that, particularly in central Otago.

"Typically 60 percent of our workforce - and we're talking about 5500 people in January in central Otago for cherries - has been [people with] working holiday visas and backpackers from overseas, and of course there's less than 20 percent of the normal number of them left in jobs around the country," Palmer told Dominic George on Magic Talk's Rural Today on Wednesday.

He said a worse-case situation would see growers "leaving the fruit to rot". 

"It would be a horrendous scenario," he said.

"Leaving fruit on the trees is a terrible thing when you're a grower and have put all the effort in to leave it on the trees. But it's an economic opportunity that New Zealand can't afford to squander. Our industry hasn't asked for any money from the Government. We worked through the lockdown and didn't need the wage subsidy and all of those things, we have continued as a horticulture sector to grow and export product.

"To squander that at this point would be a disaster for our growers, for the region and for New Zealand."

He estimated there could be a shortfall of as many as 30 percent of the workforce in central Otago. And without enough workers, the fruit would be wasted.

"Fruit doesn't wait. It's not like closing a factory and saying we'll reopen it next week.

If you don't take it at optimum, every day or every hour you lose after optimum decreases the value exponentially of the crop to a point where it's just not worth harvesting."

Palmer said the issue could have far-reaching consequences

"There's lots of uncertainty out there and the challenge is not just for growers but for the region," he said.

"This is important, particularly for central Otago, a region incredibly hard hit by the tourism downturn and the fact there's no international tourists. It's not just about our growers, it's about the region, it's the flow-on businesses and New Zealand's economic opportunity for export earnings as we recover from COVID."

Horticulture New Zealand president Barry O'Neil on Wednesday said industry-wide it was estimated there was a shortfall of 10,000 workers.

He was calling on the Government to allow in workers from Pacific countries immediately, before product went to waste.

"We want to see the border opened now so people from COVID-free Pacific nations can come and work the harvest, as they have done for the past 13 years under the recognised seasonal employer scheme," he said.

Palmer said the industry had had "some positive discussions" with the Government but action was needed now.