Hawke's Bay apple growers fear 'crisis' as picking season hits peak

Hawke's Bay apple growers fear 'crisis' as picking season hits peak
Photo credit: Getty Images

By Tom Kitchin for RNZ

Apple growers fear they will face carnage as the picking season hits its peak in the next few weeks.

Border closures have meant few overseas workers, and locals were just as hard to find.

Yummy Fruit general manager Paul Paynter told RNZ he was only sleeping four hours a night these days, even with the help of tranquillisers.

"I think there's going to be a point of crisis. I mean, physically and mentally I feel it now but I think the pain is really to come down the track. But [I'm] certainly super anxious at the moment, I'm not sleeping and I'm really worried about our future."

He stared down the rows of apples on his fields around Hastings and wondered how many would rot on the ground.

Even if he picked 85 percent of them, he said, he would still face red ink.

Thornhill Contracting managing director Richard Bibby agreed it would be a "challenge".

"We're fortunate that we've got a lot of our students come through that November-December period which really got us over a big hump, but again there's not many backpackers or working holiday scheme people and we're really struggling to get New Zealanders at the moment into the field."

The government let 2000 Pacific RSE workers in to cover the shortage.

Growers say while it helped, it was still not enough.

Students are on their way back to university or polytech and work numbers have not been boosted by the government's offer of $1000 to take up seasonal work for six weeks or more.

An employment expo was held in Hastings today to get locals interested.

Sieg J and Ihghly Ihaia were completing a wellbeing course called Te Oranga Pūmanawa in the Napier suburb of Maraenui and were at the expo.

Ihaia said she was there to look at "some new opportunities and a new path and direction".

J said he was there "really to help young people around the hood to get somewhere - create new paths".

Pickers in Hawke's Bay tried to get an isolation facility in Hastings over the line to bring in more RSE workers but Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said it could not be done.

"It really came down to a question of resourcing, so we would've needed extra staff and at the moment as you will see from media coverage there's not an abundance of people who are willing to work in these facilities."

He was certain the government would not let apples rot.

"We're working really hard with our primary producers to make sure they get access to the workforces they need. That includes domestic workforces, so making sure that we are getting New Zealanders into those roles.

"It's also meant keeping seasonal workers into the country who would have otherwise had to leave and we are bringing 2000 RSE workers into the country as well."

Hastings Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst told RNZ at the expo data showed there were people out there that could take up the work.

"Well 300 people came off [the] benefit [in Hawke's Bay] last week. The jobs are there, the industry leaders are offering really, really good picking rates and packing rates, and so people can earn really good money in picking fruit this summer."