Despite extra seasonal workers, uncertainty remains for wine industry ahead of winter pruning

Winter pruning is approaching for wine makers.
Winter pruning is approaching for wine makers. Photo credit: Getty

With more seasonal workers soon to enter New Zealand, there is optimism in the wine industry ahead of the winter pruning season. 

However, it is still "very much wait and see" as to whether there will be enough workers to stem the sector's ongoing labour shortage.

Earlier this week the Government announced more than 2000 recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers would be given space in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities over the coming 10 months.

Around 300 RSE workers will arrive monthly from Pacific countries starting in June, with a total of 2400 arriving by March next year.

Philip Gregan, chief executive of New Zealand Wine, said wine makers had been under enormous stress in the past months and news more workers would be allowed into the country was a "very positive announcement". 

"We will have workers in the field from mid-July onwards, so that's still early enough to make a difference  in terms of winter pruning," Gregan told Magic Talk's Rural Today on Friday.

He said although the harvest season had now passed, winter pruning was a critical time for the viticulture sector.

"Pruning is all about setting the vine up to produce quality grapes next season. If you don't get that right it has a huge impact on the quality of next year's harvest also on the quantity.

"It's a very, very important task - that's why the industry's been so concerned about the labour shortage."

Normally there are around 14,000 RSE workers in New Zealand during the peak harvest period. However due to our border being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were only around 4000 workers during this year's harvest season.

Although the Government granted border exemptions for a further 2000 workers late last year the horticulture and viticulture industries still struggled to find enough workers.

Gregan said the wine industry had "been forced to adapt".

"With pruning, people have started much earlier than they probably would have liked to, but the labour shortage has meant that's been a necessity.

"I think there's been a lot of mental stress in the industry. This issue of pruning is so important, it's so fundamental to producing quality wine that  people have been very worried about 'what if I can't get my vines pruned?' or  'what if I'm too late?'. So there's been a lot of stress associated with it."

The sector would be "keeping a very close eye" on whether the extra workers would be enough to stem the shortage, he said.

"The number of RSE workers in New Zealand is still down on what one might call normal levels, we don't have the same number of it's something that we've got to watch very closely."

He said although more Kiwis had been attracted to the industry, in some regions where unemployment was low and there was no large population to draw on "there's just not the workers available".

"There are real limits as to our ability to attract  New Zealanders into these roles but we're working hard to that end."