As labour shortage continues, storm-hit growers face race against time to save crops for next season

Almost a month after a devastating hailstorm in the Tasman district, an ongoing labour shortage in the horticulture industry is continuing to add to the difficulties faced by many growers.

The storm, which happened on Boxing Day last year, severely damaged buildings in Motueka, as well as destroying as much as 80 to 100 percent of some orchards' crops.

Heavy rain in Central Otago earlier this month also devastated as much as 60 percent of some cherry growers' crops, halving a potential record harvest.

Alan Pollard, New Zealand Apples and Pears chief executive, said the devastating damage came at a time when the horticulture industry was already struggling.

"On top of the difficulties of the COVID lockdown and the labour shortages that we're facing, this is the last thing that growers in Nelson and Central Otago needed to happen," Pollard told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Monday.

He told host Dominic George the Tasman hailstorm was "far-reaching" and "certainly abnormal".

"Most of the growers say they've never seen anything like it in their years of orcharding...I've never seen damage like it."

Reports of total losses being well over $100 million "wouldn't be exaggerated at all", he said.

With COVID-19 closing the country's borders, thousands of migrant workers are unable to enter the country this harvest season, with Pollard estimating there will be a shortfall of around 11,000 workers when the season hits its peak in March.

He said many students who had been attracted to the industry during their holidays would have to return to university before the March peak

And although the Government's decision to allow border exemptions for 2000 workers - the first of whom arrived last weekend - would go part of the way to easing pressure, "there still remains a significant gap".

"So we're facing some significant challenges."     

Despite the difficulties facing growers, Pollard said those hit the hardest were helping one another.

"It's really difficult times for them, obviously, and the thing you notice - particularly in those rural communities - is just how close-knit they are, everybody cares about the health and well-being of each other. 

"When I visited Nelson, talking to the growers down there, their concerns were primarily around not just their own businesses but the health and well-being of their staff."

He said the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Ministry of Social Development and the Rural Support Trust had all "really stepped up" and were "doing an outstanding job down there" supporting those affected.

And although "for some orchardists, it's a 100 percent write-off of their crops", Pollard said there remained much work to be done in order to save the crops for next season, including managing the health of the damaged trees to make sure they weren't susceptible to disease.

Because of the complexity of the situation, a lot more workers than normal were also needed.

"There's a huge amount of work involved now and actually the skill level of the work involved changes - it's quite complex working with hail-damaged crops," he said.

"Because regardless of the fruit being damaged it's still got to come off the trees... if we want to have any chance of having a crop next year then we've got to go and get the fruit off, and we've got a short window."