● There are not enough labourers to pick the entire apple crop this year
● Growers are losing millions of dollars because they cannot sell their entire crop
● Apples left on trees too long are not good enough to export
● The apple industry was also struck by adverse weather, leading to crop losses
Labour shortages in the apple industry are costing growers millions of dollars, with an industry-wide loss of more than $105 million expected, industry representatives say.
Napier grower Kelvin Taylor said he had to leave 15% to 20% of his apple crop on the trees this year, with not enough hands available to pick the fruit.
Taylor, who grew 450 hectares of apples destined for export, said this year has been the hardest he experienced in almost 50 years.
About 70 local workers and overseas backpackers would usually fill his packhouse, but workers were so scarce he only managed to find 15 this season. There were no backpackers at all.
Before flights were stopped he managed to fill his almost 200-strong seasonal picker worker quota from overseas. But, many of these had to be redeployed into his packhouse, which meant they fell behind with picking, Taylor said.
“Many other growers managed to find only half the staff they needed,” Taylor said.
As apples matured at different rates, they could not all be harvested at the same time. This meant labour was needed during different periods, with some orchards being visited for picking up to five times to harvest the entire crop, Taylor said.
“You can’t leave them on a tree and pick them at the end of a season, they will be over-mature and there will be quality loss,” Taylor said.
A lot of fruit was rejected this season as a result of such quality issues, which meant a lot of food wastage and large numbers of apples not sent to the export market, Taylor said.
“We lost a couple of million dollars [this season],” Taylor said.
Taylor said if he redirected his export apples to the local market it would be flooded.
This would drive down price and destroy the businesses of growers who serviced only Kiwis. This would also mean he would not recover the money he spent for growing.
Apples that could not be exported because they were not the best quality were used to produce juice. But these apples fetched such a low price that it only covered the costs of transporting them to juicers, Taylor said.
As restrictions on labour became evident two years ago Taylor invested multiple millions of dollars into robotics for his packhouse. He now had robotic stackers and driverless forklifts. This investment had a slow return because New Zealand growers only used their facilities six months of the year.
This was in contrast to US or European growers who supplied their local markets throughout the year, and could make returns on investment much faster, he said.
Ships bypassing Napier port because of the impact that Covid-19 had on labour in the shipping industry, and a lack of export containers, also affected profits of growers because a lot of apples could not be sent to market on time and had to be discarded, Taylor said.
“As an industry we are facing so many challenges, the government can’t help us with something like shipping logistics, but if they can help with labour and ease working holiday restrictions and entry of RSE workers it would be a relief,” Taylor said.
New Zealand Apples and Pears chief executive Terry Meikle said the entire apple harvest would be down an estimated 12% this year.
In January the 2022 crop was estimated to reach 23.2 million boxes. The forecast was now to about 20.3 million boxes. This meant export earnings dove by $105 million, Meikle said.
On top of labour shortages, adverse weather events in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne also affected this season’s apple crop, he said.
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