Crunch time for struggling Otago orchards

One orchardist calculates he has lost up to 40 percent of his cherries crop this season.
One orchardist calculates he has lost up to 40 percent of his cherries crop this season. Photo credit: File / Summerfruit NZ

By Tess Brunton of RNZ

Some Central Otago orchards say this season's crop is a write off, while others are struggling to find enough workers.

It has been a tough season for the growers, with COVID-19 border restrictions cutting the crucial supply of overseas workers.

To make matters worse, a deluge hit during the peak cherry harvest.

Ettrick Gardens co-owner John Preedy has been growing fruit, berries and vegetables in the small Central Otago town of Ettrick for decades.

The orchard scraped through the busy berry picking period, but is entering crunch time as students head home.

Preedy is worried there will be no one around to harvest apples and other autumnal fruit.

"The loss of the backpackers and not having my summer RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme) workers... that's really where we're going to feel it," Preedy said.

"Normally the backpackers finish cherries and then they're looking for things to do before the main apples start, and we can fill a few gaps there and it works out quite well, but not now."

The Government has granted a border exemption for 2000 Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme workers from the Pacific to assist with harvests across the country. Some have already arrived and started their COVID-19 isolation period.

Eligible RSE employers have to cover the costs of flights, managed isolation and quarantine requirements, pastoral care and work conditions including paying workers $22.10 an hour. They also need to ensure workers are employed for the full period of their visa and must help workers move to areas with the greatest demand.

Preedy needed about eight more workers, but said the exemption was no help to him.

"The Government is... just not interested in listening.

"I don't know what the hell's wrong with them but the RSE thing ... my business is a small family business and we can't afford to spend $8000 a head to bring RSE workers in. It's just too much for us."

Freshmax Orchards Central Otago operations manager Nigel Hope said they would usually harvest 60 to 80 tonnes of cherries and 500 tonnes of stone fruit a season, with up to 80 people picking and packing.

But the new year deluge turned their season upside down.

"We lost 40 percent of our cherries," Hope said.

"Some people have walked away from their crops, some people are just struggling through, carrying on, trying to get the best they can out of it and basically looking forward to the next season - 2022 - because this one's pretty much a write off."

Webb's Fruit grows summer stone fruit, apples and pears over 45 hectares near Cromwell, and still has roughly 80 percent of the harvest left to go.

Owner Simon Webb said his orchard was doing fine so far, but he knew others were doing it tough.

"It's hard, you know. You do all of that work for 11 months of the year and you've only got a month to get fruit off and if it goes wrong, times aren't fun," Webb said.

Central Otago District Mayor Tim Cadogan recently visited growers around the Teviot Valley.

The orchards were looking promising, but they were facing worker shortages, particularly for the upcoming apple harvest, he said.

Students were returning to their study - and apple picking was not for the faint hearted.

"The average apple picker, I'm told, climbs 25 vertical kilometres up and down the ladders in the course of the season, so it's really tough," he said.

"If you get pruning wrong, you find out the effects come harvest time, so it is skilled and they're really, really worried about getting the workers in to do that."

Cadogan said more RSE workers should be let into New Zealand and allowed to stay longer.

Minister of immigration Kris Faafoi's office said there were no current plans to increase the intake of RSE workers, but he was monitoring the situation.

Immigration NZ confirmed that from 17 January until early March, 13 flights were scheduled to arrive every four days, with approximately 150 workers on board.

While many growers are stoically counting their losses, searching for staff or busy picking, they are hopeful for a more fruitful season in 2022.