'Fruit picking OE' – Orchardist's travel idea for Kiwis amid pandemic

As Covid-19 limits people from travelling in and out of New Zealand, a Tasman orchardist is trying to convince Kiwis to spend their OE working in the region.

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Steve Thomas of Thomas Orchard Bros is encouraging people to take up fruit picking in his area as international travel remains grounded. Source: Breakfast

Steve Thomas of Thomas Orchard Bros this morning told TVNZ1's Breakfast the fruit picking season will be heating up in February and March, and without the usual influx of workers from overseas there's been concerns in the horticulture sector that fruit will rot on the ground.

So, in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, Thomas said Kiwis who'd typically be heading out of New Zealand on their overseas experience should instead spend it working for him.

The industry has been criticised for paying its workers low wages under tough conditions, but Thomas says workers get a fair deal at his family-owned business.

"We're in an amazing place, right, so the conditions are great. We like to have culture in around family businesses where the staff are having an enjoyable time," he said.

When it comes to wages, Thomas said his wife had done a lot of fruit picking before having their son. 

"She would constantly pick 10 bins a day of kiwifruit and that put her at about $27 an hour so - that's good money. She's well motivated and so I guess the message to the younger people that'd be really keen to get out there is if they're motivated they're going to do really well and make a lot of money."

Thomas said the mid to high $20-mark was typical pay. They also provide accommodation for $100-$150 a week, including power and bedding.

"They're still going to have several hundred dollars in their bank after they've paid their accommodation," he said.

A spokesperson for Project Kokiri, which set up as an economic response to Covid-19 in the region, told Breakfast and mid to late February was a "fantastic time" to be in the region.

"We've had a really tough year like everyone with Covid, and tourism's been hit really hard ... the signs are really optimistic about summer, there's cautious optimism out there, but when it comes to the harvest which is the food and beverage sector - that's what's carried us through this time," Johnny O'Donnell said.

"If we only get through 75 per cent of our harvest then the economic impact of that is $125 million on this region."

O'Donnell said the horticulture and primary sectors had shown resilience through the global pandemic, but looking ahead to harvest they desperately needed New Zealanders to come experience the region and work for "great employers" like Thomas.

"If you're a school leaver or a university graduate or you're recently out of work, this is a fantastic place to come and have your OE while you can't go overseas.

"The vast majority of our employers here are family businesses, they're inter-generational, they've been here for a long time, they love this place and it's a fantastic place to come and work."