Labour shortage leads to $100 million drop in apple exports

Exports are forecast to be 14 percent lower than 2020 levels.
Exports are forecast to be 14 percent lower than 2020 levels. Photo credit: Getty

An ongoing labour shortage in the horticulture industry is set to cost the apple industry around $100 million in lost export earnings.

On Friday, New Zealand Apples and Pears (NZAPI), the association representing apple, pear and nashi growers, updated its crop estimate for 2021, revealing some "disappointing" figures.

The industry now expects the export share of the gross national crop to be around 347,718 metric tonnes or19.3 million cartons - 3 million cartons, or 14 percent, below 2020. The figures represent a $95-$100 million year-on-year reduction of export earnings.

Chief executive Alan Pollard said in January the industry forecast a gross national crop of 558,672 metric tonnes, five percent down on the 2020 harvest.

"Now we're well into harvest, we've passed the peak of our largest variety of Royal Gala,and it's become pretty obvious we're not going to achieve those levels," Pollard told Newshub.

"It's very disappointing for growers when we've got a fantastic crop on the trees and the quality is outstanding."

The Braeburn variety of apple was the most significantly impacted, with export levels estimated to be 44 percent below 2020 levels. Royal Gala apples will be down around 15 percent.

With the COVID-19 pandemic essentially closing our borders, the horticulture industry has faced a massive shortage of workers this season. Although the Government granted border exemptions for 2000 recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers growers say this is still not enough. Attempts to lure Kiwis into the industry have also come up short.

Pollard said the lack of workers means some fruit will have to be left on the trees.

"We'll certainly be leaving crop behind," he said. 

"We have to get the crop off the tree at some point, because it's got to help us set up for next season, but it clearly won't be picked as a viable product to be sold to consumers."

He said the situation was "gut wrenching" for growers.

"There's nothing you can do about it but watch it degrade, So it's very disappointing."

The situation was made worse with fruit size coming in smaller than average, Pollard said. 

"To be frank, the season's probably working out as we predicted towards the end of last year. And it's not a prediction that we're particularly happy about being right."