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Grower warns fruit will 'rot on the ground' as border remains shut to pickers

A South Auckland grower says hundreds of tonnes of produce will "rot on the ground" and prices will be driven up at the checkout if borders remain closed to fruit pickers from overseas.

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Perrys Berrys founder Francine Perry says tonnes of product will be lost, driving prices up for consumers. Source: Breakfast

Immigration New Zealand has granted border exceptions to some offshore musicians to participate in a winery tour this summer. Measures have also been made to accomodate the Australian rugby team, the English netball team, the West Indies and Pakistan cricket teams, and the America's Cup teams.

But for experienced seasonal fruit pickers, even from Covid-19-free Samoa, New Zealand's border remains shut.

Founder of South Auckland-based strawberry grower Perrys Berrys, Francine Perry, told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning the move was putting at risk hundreds of tonnes of fresh fruit and hundreds of jobs for Kiwis.

Perry said she'd been trying for months to sort the issue with Government officials, and says she'd abide by any rules around Covid-19, even though Samoa has never had a single case.

"We would follow every single rule that was put in front of us, but nobody wants to give us the rules and nobody wants to talk to us," she said.

"If we don't sort it out then it's a problem for the economy here as well, I mean, we can't have a situation where the horticultural industry cannot operate and I think that's where we're heading."

Perry said a small team has been picking for about three weeks, but they need more people for the physically demanding work.

She said workers were paid between minimum wage and up to $36 an hour if they do good work.

Across the whole industry, about 14,000 workers come from overseas to help with the harvest. 

However, due to Covid-19 restrictions, Perry said the impact will have a domino effect - there will be less work for packers, and ice cream and jam industries won't have local product.

"That will just mean more imports from other countries who will benefit from our situation," Perry said.

"The horticultural industry are critical for the New Zealand economy and we want to provide jobs for as many Kiwis as we can, if we can't get harvested then we can't provide jobs.

"If you have fruit rotting then there's a problem for prices domestically."

Perry said she's expecting 250 or more tonnes of strawberries to be wasted and she says she's not alone.

"The vegetable growers in South Auckland have exactly the same problem ... the cherry growers in central Otago, the nectarine growers - they relied in the past on backpackers, there are no backpackers to speak of so we all need help, not just us."

Later on Breakfast, Labour's finance spokesperson Grant Robertson said it was "a two-way street" with Samoa, who had been reluctant to have people leave the island nation then go back.

However, he added "we are working actively" to get people in from overseas.

"We've created class exceptions for agriculture and horticulture and fisheries so that we can bring people in but there are going to need to be more New Zealanders here and that means there'll need to be a little give and take around things like rosters, supporting people with transport and wages as well."