23 Dec 2019

Central Otago housing demand, prices worry fruit growers

3:40 pm on 23 December 2019

Central Otago fruit growers say housing could come under more pressure as their industry expands.

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Photo: 123RF

A recent Southern DHB report found a lack of housing availability was driving up housing prices in Central Otago, forcing some to live in crowded homes or even sleep rough.

While many orchards have staff accommodation available, some businesses say they're losing good staff who can't find a permanent place to live.

Sarita Orchard manager Matthew Blanch said he was not sure how fruit growers would find enough staff if big orchard proposals went ahead.

"Well we've got 25 hectares planted and we use 120 people over the picking season. Some of these orchards going in they're looking at 100 hectares, they're gonna need, over the picking season, a staff of 500 probably," Blanch said.

"We're scratching our head where they think they're going to get staff from."

He was not sure where all of the extra staff would stay - building houses on the orchards was even floated as a potential solution.

Blanch lives 30km from the orchard because living in nearby Cromwell is too unaffordable even for him, and costs make it difficult to hire permanent orchard workers.

"It's just hard," he said. "You know, like when we're looking for someone they might be from out of town and go 'oh, we'll just buy a house when we get the job' and then they come down here and realise there's nothing. It's just not affordable."

On the outskirts of Cromwell, Webb's Fruit is preparing to start harvesting after more than a century in business.

The Central Otago town of Cromwell.

Cromwell, Central Otago. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Its owner Simon Webb said they were able to house up to 24 people in beds, and more in campgrounds which offer showers, a kitchen, laundry and toilets.

Having accommodation was not uncommon for the larger orchards, he said.

His business hired a mixed group of local university and high school students, retirees, and backpackers, he said, so it did not rely on one source of staffing.

While all of his permanent staff had good places to live in Cromwell, he said housing issues were far from out of sight and out of mind.

"It is expensive for them and it can be challenging for them to find the right accommodation. That is definitely an issue so it eats into their pay packet so even if you're paying them a good wage for the work they're doing ... the cost of accommodation is just a big part of their expenses," Webb said.

Jackson Orchards co-owner-manager Mark Jackson said the proposed new orchards would add to the housing pressures if it wasn't managed well.

Many fruit growers had been forced to take the initiative, he said.

"We're seeing orchards that haven't had accommodation in the past definitely taking it onboard and starting to build accommodation and cabins for fruit pickers, and I think we're going to see more of that. We have to see more of that."

Central Otago District Mayor Tim Cadogan said many fruit growers were stepping up to alleviate the strain on housing.

"Traditionally a lot of people have gone and camped around the lake, and that was putting a lot of pressure on the social licence for people to camp. The fruit growers, to be fair, have responded really well I think over the last three years in recognising that they do have some responsibility to house that short-term staff," Cadogan said.

Housing solutions would be discussed by the Central Otago District Council early next year, he said.

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