If there are thousands of workers missing from the dairy industry, Damien O'Connor says he hasn't heard about it.
The Minister of Agriculture said he was unaware of a Federated Farmers/DairyNZ survey, which found there could be a shortage of up to 4000 dairy workers in New Zealand.
"I heard it was 1000 and actually they asked for 500 and are now asking for 300 so it's really hard to identify the exact shortage," he told The Country's Jamie Mackay.
Instead, O'Connor wanted to highlight "some really good things" happening in the dairy industry, including more Kiwis working in the sector, which he had been "working hard at".
"Saying 4000 is just an over-exaggeration [which] actually makes people feel worse, when they should be feeling - I think we can get through this."
O'Connor admitted he hadn't seen the survey yet, but was meeting with DairyNZ later today.
"I'll ask them how that survey was conducted and indeed if it was 4000. They've never used that figure with me."
Meanwhile, Southland Federated Farmers sharemilker chair Jason Herrick had written to O'Connor, explaining how difficult it was to attract Kiwis to the dairy industry.
"Those in the rural sector believe we have exhausted all options to employ our fellow New Zealanders in the dairy industry. To put it bluntly, New Zealanders do not want to work on farms," Herrick wrote.
As a result, Herrick had "very serious concerns regarding the health and wellbeing of both employers and employees in the dairy industry".
According to Herrick, O'Connor said New Zealand farmers needed to offer a better working environment.
He was concerned the Minister was "very disconnected" from the realities of dairy farming, as the majority offered "good hours and working conditions".
Herrick accused O'Connor of allowing "the rhetoric that farmers are ruining our beautiful country" to put people off working on-farm.
"I never allowed that rhetoric…the progress we've made across dairy and environmental management has been massive over the years."
He said growth in cow numbers in Southland and Canterbury had created "environmental challenges" that need to be worked through, which the Government was doing with local councils.
O'Connor believed Kiwis didn't want to work on farms because they would rather live in cities, and they needed an incentive to move to a rural area.
"They have to see that there's a better future in it for them in some way."
This could be achieved through wages, job progression or farm ownership, O'Connor said.
"Those motivations are the same for New Zealanders regardless of where we live and we just have to find what other motivations will get more people out to live in the rural areas."
Mackay suggested O'Connor needed to face the reality that New Zealand's primary industries relied on migrant workers because Kiwis either weren't interested, or were unsuitable.
O'Connor said Covid-19 restrictions had made it difficult to rely on migrant labour, so "we have to try and come up with new innovative ways" to relieve pressure on primary industries.
One way was to stop talking negatively about the sector, something Mackay was guilty of, O'Connor said.
"I listened the other day when I was driving somewhere and I thought - God you'd think that primary sectors were on their knees," he said.
Record dairy payouts and good prices for beef and horticulture showed the primary industries were far from struggling, O'Connor said.
"We are in a really good spot, not just compared to the rest of the world, but actually compared to history. We're doing really well here."
It was time to accentuate the positive, if the industry had any hope of growing its workforce, O'Connor said.
"We should be playing it up, because then we're wondering why we can't attract people to our sectors, because if they listened to your programme at times Jamie, they wouldn't want to be there."
Mackay pointed out that there were around $200 million of apples rotting on the ground with no one to pick them.
"I'm not sure what the total export income from apples was this year – probably record," O'Connor countered.
Dealing with rotting apples was business as usual for the horticulture sector, O'Connor said.
"There have always been apples on the ground - there were more this year - we had hail down my patch of the world. So there have been, as there always are, ongoing challenges."
Ultimately, it was important to focus on the positive aspects of New Zealand's agriculture sector, in order to get more people into the workforce, O'Connor said.
"I never, ever talk down farming, I always talk it up because I am always trying to attract people to it."
"Other people are talking it down and then wondering why people aren't attracted to it – it's pretty logical."