Apple growers panicking as major labour shortage threatens picking season

Apple picking started in Hawke's Bay this week, and growers are in a panic over the huge labour shortage.

In September, the sector warned the Government a $9.5 billion economic loss was on the cards unless it let in workers from the Pacific Islands. And that's becoming a reality.

It's crunch time for apple growers. There are 120 million Yummy Fruit apples that need picking before May, but orchards face a major shortage of workers.

"I'm really distressed, certainly a lot of sleepless nights about where the people are going to come from," says Yummy Fruit Company general manager Paul Paynter​.

Paynter's worst fears have come true - he's expecting thousands of apples will be left to rot.

"It's heartbreaking for growers to spend the whole year producing something and then not have a harvest," he says.

Helping with the harvest this year is an Italian couple - two of many backpackers who've had their visas extended.

"With the summer I think it is a good job, you stay outside under the sun," says backpacker Walter Bergamaschi.

However, with fewer backpackers, university students going back this week, and only 2000 overseas workers from the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, the sector is in crisis.

"Clearly there are some RSE workers coming into NZ as we speak, equally there are some going home through repatriation - so the shortage is definitely in the thousands," says Apples and Pears NZ CEO Alan Pollard.

Both the Immigration Minister and the Minister for Primary Industries are keeping in regular contact with horticulture and wine sector representatives. That will continue, but there are no plans, at this stage, to expand the current border exception beyond the 2000 RSE workers.

The sector usually has about 15,000 RSE workers - without their helping hands growers are chopping fruit trees down.

"We've certainly removed three or four blocks of lower-paying varieties. We think we're not going to get to something so let's cut them down," Paynter​ says.

The labour shortage well and truly upsetting the apple cart.