9 Feb 2022

Omicron outbreak: Growers fear worst ever season about to be surpassed

8:37 pm on 9 February 2022

New Zealand's biggest pipfruit region is bracing itself for another impossibly tough season.

A Solomon Islander picking apples in a Hawke's Bay orchard as part of New Zealand's Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

Growers are dealing with a worse labour shortage than last year and will be picking at a possible peak for the Omicron outbreak. (file pic) Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Many in Hawke's Bay thought last year was the worst ever season - with "thumping losses", but fear this one could be more difficult.

The height of the season is in March and April - right when Omicron is expected to peak.

Growers are saying they not only have to contend with an even worse labour shortage than last year due to fewer backpackers being in the country and a low unemployment rate, but are worried about what happens when the virus passes through their gates.

John Evans grows apples, pears and kiwifruit just out of Hastings with RJ Flowers.

He said he was feeling "apprehensive" about the season ahead.

"Essentially that's around obviously this [Covid-19] protocol, the risks attached to our business and obviously keeping people safe."

Growers are excited by a high volume crop because of good weather, but with a labour shortage and people potentially isolating from Omicron, it could rot on the ground.

Evans said this was especially worrying, as there could be people out of work from all over the supply chain.

"The whole logistics, so that's the big concern is what impacts that might have in that chain and it's something we just don't know and things are changing each week."

He said communication and checking on people were the keys to getting through such times.

"To support each other is a key thing, talk to your friends, talk to your neighbours, talk to your workmates. We're all sharing the challenge of this - and it has been unprecedented for all of us. None of us have ever experienced anything like this."

RSE worker offloads apples into a crate in a Hawke's Bay orchard.

Grower John Evans: "None of us have ever experienced anything like this." Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Fears growers will be 'on the brink'

Paul Paynter from Yummy Fruits said last year was a challenge.

"We certainly made a thumping loss, disrupted our markets, disrupted shipping, weren't able to harvest all the crop. There were lots of issues at play and so another year like that and people will really be on the brink."

He said this year, rapid antigen tests could make a huge difference to his business.

"If you get the RAT test that would be very helpful because the rules change entirely. If they consider you to be a critical business, supplying the New Zealand food chain, people who are close contacts can continue working providing they're asymptomatic and pass the RAT test."

He has applied for them and hopes to get them sooner rather than later.

"We're just waiting now to see what happens. There's limited availability but there seems to be a whole lot more on order and I think we'll certainly be up the pecking order on Joe Average up there, so hopefully they'll see some merit in giving us RAT tests early."

The president of the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers' Association, Brydon Nisbet, shared a similar view.

"There's a lack of availability of RAT tests as it is, but I would imagine if they become available for people to buy, for businesses to buy, for orchardists to buy they will do that - just to keep their workers tested at work and safe. Also if workers do have to isolate, they'll be able to give them the RAT test to try and get them back to work."

Concern over staged border re-opening

Meanwhile, the government's staged approach to opening the border was not seen as good for getting workers.

The chief executive of industry body NZ Apples and Pears, Terry Meikle, said it would not bring in workers fast enough for this season.

"By the time any working holiday visas come in it'll be too little too late, and also can we be convinced that they're going to come, after our settings have been pretty risk averse for a long, long time?"

On the other hand, he hoped the proposed prime minister-led trade missions to Australia, the European Union, Asia and North America would help attract workers on working holiday visas back to New Zealand shores for the 2023 harvest, as well as improve market access in key countries.

Optimistically, the industry was hoping for slightly higher exports than previous years, due to the high quality crop.

"However, the lingering question on growers' minds across the country is how much of the 2022 crop will get picked as the Omicron storm clouds gather," a statement from NZ Apples and Pears said.

Horticulture New Zealand and NZ Apples and Pears are providing resources for growers, with advice on how to manage Omicron.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs