'Tragedy unfolding' as labour shortage leaves Hawke's Bay apples rotting on trees

It's being described as an impending disaster as the labour shortage across the horticulture industry is beginning to bite hard.

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The consequences are hitting growers and the region’s economy. Source: 1 NEWS

With the apple harvest about to reach its peak, growers are already leaving fruit to rot due to a lack of staff.

It's a concern not only for Hawke's Bay's economy, but for farmers' wellbeing.

It's a race against the crop.

Dave Llewellyn's picking crew is just keeping up, as the fruit matures before their eyes.

"We are right on the tails of it, usually we are ahead of it and we’ve got a bit of time and we can maintain that excellent quality. This year, we are still keeping the quality, but only just," he told 1 NEWS from his Haumoana orchard.

He's a small grower whose whole year's work relies on a successful harvest.

“If you miss that you miss that, the next option is the juice factor and that’s not going to cover cost of production and not economic to pick.”

But, he considers himself lucky. 

“I know ... some of them really stressed out to the point of I was speaking to a grower earlier today who thinks this will be their last season, and more than likely they will pull the block out."

It's a story becoming more common across the region.

A small orchard owner who 1 NEWS spoke to, but agreed not to name, says they won’t be able to pick six of their blocks of apples and they will be left to go to waste.

They've described it as a "tragedy unfolding". They usually need 40 staff for the harvest. This year they've only managed to find 12.

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Major producer Yummy fruit group are also leaving fruit to rot.

General Manager Paul Paynter says it’s starting to affect their staff’s wellbeing.

“We’ve had a number of managers report the level of stress they are experiencing already. It’s stressful every year, but this one is really intense.

"To walk past blocks that they have worked hard on all year is really hard for them to cope with.”

Despite major recruitment programmes, they have less staff than two months ago, even with 80 RSE workers arriving from the Pacific.

“This is going to be hideous. I mean 500 million dollars apples are worth to this region, and I think we are looking at losing at least 100 million of that.”

Minister of Agriculture Damien O’Connor told 1 NEWS “it’s understandable that small orchardists will be under stress at this critical time of the year due to the impacts of Covid-19".

"I’ve been a grower myself and can imagine how people must be feeling.”

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About 150 pickers from Samoa began work today in apple orchards across Hawke’s Bay, as harvest season gets underway. Source: 1 NEWS

He says MPI is working with the industry on a wellbeing support package and will release details in the coming week.

“With wellbeing in mind, I remind people that the Rural Support Trusts are there to help rural people during tough times, and without a doubt this will be a tough time.

“The Trusts work alongside communities to support wellbeing and offer a free, confidential service. They are well placed to deliver one-on-one support.”

He says the Government has allocated up to an additional $1.2 million over the last two financial years to the Rural Support Trust in response to Covid-19 and the 2020 drought. This goes on top of the MPI provided baseline funding of $656,400 to Rural Support Trusts in 2020-21.

“At the grass roots, MPI has funded short courses and launched the Opportunities Grow Here campaign which has brought 3098 Kiwis into sector jobs.

"The Ministry of Social Development is working locally to help sole parents into jobs, deliver forklift and pack house training, and pastoral care for small growers.”