Horticulture industry hopes lessons learnt in previous COVID-19 lockdown will make things easier this time around

Last year checkpoints in and out of Auckland caused headaches for growers.
Last year checkpoints in and out of Auckland caused headaches for growers. Photo credit: Getty

The horticulture industry is hoping lessons learnt last year will make for a smoother and less frustrating lockdown experience this time around.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday announced Auckland would be moving to alert level 3 and the rest of the country to level 2 after three cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the community.

The lockdown has initially been set for three days.

Mike Chapman, chief executive of Horticulture New Zealand, says he hopes the latest lockdown will bring fewer issues for growers than the last one in August.

In that lockdown, COVID-19 checkpoints in south Auckland led to delays in fresh fruit and vegetables flowing in and out of the country's biggest city.

In some cases, market gardens in Pukekohe were split between both the Auckland and Waikato regions, causing confusion and headaches for growers.

This time around, the border has been moved further south, so Pukekohe is included in the Auckland region, something Chapman says is "really helpful".

He told Magic Talk's Rural Today the location of the southern border in last year's lockdown was "certainly very problematic".

"It caused lots of delays, lots of anguish and really cut back the ability to produce vegetables," he told host Dominic George on Tuesday.

"So moving the border further south and moving those crossings further south is really helpful."

Although it was a positive step, he said the "proof would be in the pudding" as to how much effect the new border locations would have.

Another improvement from last time, Chapman said, was the fact QR codes on vehicles were being trialled.

"The idea of the QR code is workers who do need to cross the border put the QR code on the dashboard of their vehicle, police can see it and will let them through. And if the police want to question it they just use the QR code to find out the business etc - so that should speed things up, provided, of course, it's not so hard to get the QR code itself," Chapman said, adding that early indications showed the system was working well. 

Also different this time around is the fact independent fruit and vegetable retailers are allowed to stay open.

"I'm very, very happy about that," Chapman said. 

"That was certainly one thing we pushed really hard for last time around. Sixty percent of what Auckland eats in terms of vegetables comes through independent fruit and vegetable retailers, plus the markets, so having those outlets open should make a  real difference about getting that healthy food to the people who need it." 

'Lockdown is really hard work for the growers'

Despite some positive changes since the last lockdown, Chapman stressed the situation was extremely tough for the industry.

"Going to level 3 lockdown is really hard work for the growers, really hard work. But we've got to keep the vegetables going through to Auckland," he said.

"No one wishes for this sort of situation to come along but we've got to keep ourselves safe. We've got to keep feeding ourselves too so it's a difficult balance to reach and hopefully, this time around we've moved it on, learnt the lessons - it certainly seems like that but we'll keep working on any issue that comes up with Government and with the growers to solve it."

With the horticulture industry currently facing a severe labour shortage, the timing of the new lockdown was even more problematic, Chapman said.

Normally the sector relies on thousands of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers and foreign backpackers to do crucial picking and packing work on orchards across the country. But with New Zealand's borders closed, there is a shortfall of thousands of workers. 

Although the Government granted border exemptions for 2000 RSE workers from the Pacific Islands late last year, growers say that isn't enough to fix the problem.

"Going into harvest, and we're talking apples and kiwifruit obviously here, the worker shortage is extreme and we're doing everything we can to find every Kiwi who can work but it's not easy," Chapman said.

"We do not want to leave value on the trees, value on the vines. This is how we earn our valuable overseas exchange to buy vaccines etc. 

"It keeps the regional economies going so it is really important that we do the best we can, and we are trying."

He said the lack of workers in conjunction with the latest lockdown meant it was "not an easy year" so far for the sector.