Growing Kiwifruit in The Time of Covid-19
Kiwifruit is a key sector for New Zealand’s horticulture industry and contributed almost $2 billion to communities across Aotearoa in 2020.
COVID-19 has thrown a major spanner into the country’s harvests by severely limiting available workers, many of whom are overseas workers. How has the kiwifruit industry fared in the face of COVID-19?
Mike Murphy of NZ Kiwifruit Growers Inc. talked with Bay of Plenty grower and employer Sean Carnachan about the challenges, how he as a grower has responded to them and what he believes needs to happen now to reduce the chances of labour shortages in future.
Mike Murphy: Life for a kiwifruit grower has been challenging since COVID-19 arrived. How have you personally, and as an orchard owner and manager, found it over the past 12 months?
Sean Carnachan: Under Level 4 during the 2020 harvest we lost a lot of our workers because they were retirees and were required to stand down for obvious reasons. But we were able to backfill with people from our Katikati community who were out of work because their businesses had shut down. They came from all walks of life and the skillsets were amazing. They got us through the harvest; we were pretty fortunate. Our biggest challenge was managing our workers’ anxiety around COVID-19. Why take the risk and come to work if there was government money available so you could stay home and avoid it? As an employer I had to make sure they felt comfortable at work and manage their anxiety – and over time it did lessen.
MM: What has helped you and your operation ensure the crop will be successfully harvested in 2021?
SC: One of the things we’re trying to do with our casual employees who are interested in longer term or permanent work is to develop new activities over the pre-harvest period so they can work through to harvest. Accommodation is an issue particularly for people out of region or backpackers and we’re putting in some accommodation on our orchard to meet that need – around 30 beds. That also helps with the other issue of transportation – getting to and from work can be an issue too. We’ve also got pretty good pay rates available, particularly if people are skilled and experienced.
MM: What has had to change in terms of your preparations for this harvest?
SC: With COVID-19 and lockdowns still a risk, we’ve looked long and hard at what we had to do last year during lockdown – the processes and precautions we put in place around social distancing and so on for our packing and picking gangs. The same will apply this harvest if we should have to go back into a Level 3 or 4 lockdown.
MM: How is the season looking both in terms of the crop and successfully getting it to market?
SC: The positives out of last year were that it was probably the best weather we’d had for many seasons in my memory which really helped with the harvest. Will we get weather like that this year? Possibly not. We have more fruit to pick this year in the same timeframe and if we have any weather disruption that may will be challenging. Harvesting can be a bit stop-start anyway because of the weather; we just hope it’s minimal.
MM: Looking out to 2022 and beyond, how do you see the industry changing and evolving?
SC: As an industry we need to be able to manage for those weather uncertainties – that stop-start issue. We need to manage our harvest maturity programme better to be able to provide a steady flow through the Packhouses in good time. We currently have to kind of turn the labour on and off early in the harvest so have a lot of latent capacity that isn’t used. That will take time to resolve at a higher level – we’re not there yet – but there’s work happening to address the issue.
MM: What do you think needs to happen to avoid any future labour issues for the kiwifruit sector, and indeed the primary sector in general?
SC: Our biggest problem – as has become very clear from recent media coverage – is that everyone in the primary sector is competing for the same pool of labour. And without the natural migration of people into the country taking up casual roles because of the border closures it’s definitely heightened the competition. It’s not just about the money either; regardless of the pay rates on offer there’s a big issue in that people are not very transient. There’s a cost to moving around that discourages people coming in from out of region. It’s easy to point the finger at Government and say it’s their problem but I do think the Government could relax some of the restriction on workers coming in, from the Pacific Islands for instance, under the RSE scheme. I think we could increase those numbers quite a bit. It would be a win-win for us and the workers whose families rely on their earnings to survive back in the islands. I think the Government might also revisit the working holiday visa (WHV) programme – maybe offer WHVs for three years rather than six months or a year.
MM: What else would you like to see happening in the industry in future?
SC: Effective resolution of the labour problem is the biggie but the industry could also look at how automation might help. There’s clearly work happening to automate some aspects of the post-harvest processes but the financial case for putting in expensive technology isn’t strong yet. Kiwifruit is seasonal; automation makes sense if it’s year-round in a factory but not as easy to justify if it’s only operating, say, for the three months when you’re putting fruit into a box.
MM: You’ve been in the sector for almost four decades – What got you into it and what’s kept you there for so long?
SC: I must have been born with green fingers. I was always interested in growing something and that just naturally led to the kiwifruit world. I just love the diversity within it – the people, the work – but also the challenges. When you’re challenged, when your back’s against the wall, sometimes that’s when you achieve the greatest steps forward. I really enjoy the fruit industry and we’re lucky in kiwifruit that we have that single point of entry to the market through Zespri.
MM: What’s your recipe for having a successful kiwifruit growing business?
SC: There are probably five ingredients to that:
- managing your labour and looking after your workers – that’s critical.
- having good relationships with your funding providers – in good times and in challenging times.
- staying connected with your industry and being active in helping it progress.
- understanding the risks within the business and mitigating those as well as you can – and a big part of that is concentrating on the things you can control and not wasting time and energy on the things you can’t – a good Stoic principle.
- and make sure you actually enjoy what you’re doing.
MM: What do you see as the attractions for people to work in the kiwifruit sector either in a casual, seasonal role or more long term or permanent one?
SC: I think the biggest attractions are the diversity and variety of work that are available – of which picking and packing are just a part. It’s healthy work, it has its challenges but overcoming those is rewarding, and you meet a diverse range of people and get to be part of a great team. And it’s a growth industry; it has an exciting future with plenty of opportunities for employment.
MM: What’s your advice for a young person contemplating working in the kiwifruit sector?
SC: I’d say: “Give it a go.” I’d encourage them to join the harvest – it’s a cool time to be involved and a great place to start out. There’s pressure, sure, as we all aim to get that harvest successfully off the vines, but it’s very satisfying and you get to meet a diverse group of people and share in the success of the harvest. If it’s not for you, you can move on to something else, but many people find it opens their eyes to other opportunities aside from picking fruit or putting them in a tray. You can have those conversations about where it might lead and the other sorts of roles available, and you might find it offers a great career pathway. Commit to kiwifruit and you will never be short of work and interesting roles.