Te Puke is the Kiwifruit Capital of the World and getting these fantastic fuzzy fruits to market takes a small army which mobilises this time each year.

For the next three months, the activity will be intense as packhouses swing into action, picking contractors and their gangs move from orchard to orchard and fruit is taken from vine to packhouse and packhouse to port.

Thousands are employed over the season from backpackers to retirees, seasonal workers to professionals from very different walks of life.

Meet Shona Stewart, Kuldip Singh and Dougal Henderson.

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WHEN Lionel Stewart reached 60, he and his wife Shona decided they had had enough of the rat race.

She was working in a supermarket in Hamilton and he had been a panel beater since he was 15.

''When Lionel got to 60, we decided we would try something a little different,'' says Shona.

''We bought a little motor home, rented the house out for six months and tootled off down to the South Island and got our first job in Motueka.''

The work was in an apple packhouse.

''There were only about 30 or 40 of us, but it was so much fun and there was so much work down there. Everywhere you go they are looking for staff for the horticulture season.''

Loving their first experience, they returned north, but decided they wanted more. They traded their house for a cheaper one, bought a bigger motor home and set off again.

''We did that for five years - worked nine months of the year and had the winter off.

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''We've did avocados right up north, then headed to Motueka to do the apple season and then the last month of the kiwifruit season and then we'd nip down to Alexandra and did a bit of apricot work down there.

"It was always just the packhouse work - we never wanted to be outside. And being in the packhouse, you're pretty much sure you've got work the whole season.''

While Shona was packing, Lionel would mostly drive forklifts.

''We had the same sheds we went to for four or five years, then in winter we'd nip over to Brisbane to see family, but we'd be back for the asparagus season in September.''

A consignment of kiwifruit is loaded aboard a ship at the Port of Tauranga.
A consignment of kiwifruit is loaded aboard a ship at the Port of Tauranga.

Things are a little different now - they still have the nine-month/three-month split in their year - but work for three and ''cruise the other nine''.

''We are pretty much semi-retired now, but it gives you a few extra dollars to top up your pension,'' says Shona.

For the past nine years they have worked at Trevelyan's.

Shona's experience was in grading, so that's what she did at first.

''I then went into inline checking - checking the fruit as it comes off the line. That's probably the first step in quality control. After doing that for three or four years they asked me if Id like to be the bin checker and this last couple of years I've been doing the training of the bin checkers.''

The bin checkers check the incoming fruit to determine how good a job the pickers are doing. If the job is good enough, they get a bonus.

''If we find too much damaged fruit or stalks on the fruit then they lose the bonus for that week.''

Lionel is still driving forklifts - delivering boxes to where they are needed in the complex.

''It can be hectic, but after you've been doing it for a while, it just falls into place.''

Over the years they have met all sorts of people.

''You've got to open your mind to that - when we first started we met some weird characters to be honest,'' says Shona.

''I remember one lady in Motueka had her apron on for an hour then took it off and walked out the door - some people just can't hack it because at times it's boring.''

But often people turn out to be really good workers too, she says.

KULDIP Singh is a grader supervisor assistant — reject analysis — at Trevelyan's packhouse.

Rejected kiwifruit are inevitable — and it's Kuldip Singh's job to find out why.

Grader supervisor assistant - reject analysis Kuldip Singh.
Grader supervisor assistant - reject analysis Kuldip Singh.

Kuldip is in his 10th season working for Trevelyan's. While the packing season lasts three months, kiwifruit is his life. For the other nine months, he looks after an orchard on No 1 Rd.

He says working in the packhouse, there is never a shortage of interesting people. Kuldip came to New Zealand from India in 1989, and has lived in Te Puke for 10 years after spending time in Hastings and Auckland.

He was a grader at Trevelyan's for eight years, took on the role of line checking last year and this year moved into reject analysis.

"I look at why there is problem with it," he says.

"Because the grader takes [fruit] out, we check that fruit and whether they are doing the right job or not.

"If they are not doing the right job, my main role is to inform the supervisor who goes to that grader and can correct what's going wrong."

He likes the environment as a change from orchard work, and the packhouse is a friendly place.

"But you've got to do your job — no nobody's going to like you if you don't do your job."

Small increase in crop forecast

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson says there are be fewer international students available for seasonal kiwifruit jobs.

As the kiwifruit season cranks up, there are predictions of a small increase in the Bay of Plenty crop and a potential labour shortage.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson said early indications are the crop this year is expected to show a small increase from last year, particularly in relation to SunGold as new planting matures.

NZ Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nikki Johnson.
NZ Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nikki Johnson.

"The industry is expected to grow significantly in the next 10 years, reflecting the plantings of SunGold that have taken place over the last two years, and the intention for 700 hectares of licence to be released this year and ongoing for the next five years," she said.

A Zespri spokesman said it was expecting a bigger crop than in 2017, with a recovery in green volumes and continued growth of SunGold. Zespri sold more than 120 million trays of kiwifruit last season and in February reported improved forecast returns for the 2017/18 season.

EastPack chief executive Hamish Simson said its six sites in the Bay could pack about 38 million trays this season, up 5 million trays on last season.

In the past five years, the company had invested more than $100 million in infrastructure that included increasing cooling store capacity, new grading machinery and technology.

EastPack chief executive Hamish Simson.
EastPack chief executive Hamish Simson.

This year has already seen the Ministry for Social Development declare a worker shortage for fruit pickers in Hawke's Bay, and as the kiwifruit season progresses, workers could be in hot demand.

"Figures from 2016 show around 60 per cent of the seasonal workers are New Zealanders with around 10 per cent backpackers, 15 per cent Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers and 15 per cent international students," says Johnson.

"However, we anticipate there are significantly fewer international students available for work this year and that will mean a greater reliance on backpackers and New Zealanders."

Trevelyan's general manager Stephen Butler said it was keeping a close eye on the situation in Hawke's Bay and whether that would flow through to the kiwifruit harvest.

"A labour shortage obviously would impact all areas of the industry, but it is too soon to say if there will be a crisis this season."

It required 1500 seasonal workers but He said it "appears we have all roles covered at this stage".

Trevelyan's would pack 15 million trays, an increase of 3 million on last season.

FOR someone brought up on a dairy farm with a background in mining and geology, Dougal Henderson might not be the immediately obvious candidate for packhouse manager.

But that's his role at Trevelyan's where he is starting his fifth season.

Packhouse manager Dougal Henderson.
Packhouse manager Dougal Henderson.

"I did earth science at university, then went to Australia and worked in the mines. Then I came back to New Zealand and worked for an exploration company looking for gold."

He and his French partner were made redundant in 2008 so they moved to France and Dougal worked in West Africa.

The kiwifruit connection came when his parents bought a Bay of Plenty dairy farm that happened to have a small block of kiwifruit. They grew that side of the business and Dougal returned to New Zealand to learn about the industry.

"I went into the packhouse pretty much straight away," he says.

"I had no experience of kiwifruit, but growing up on a dairy farm, a lot of principles are the same. And my earth science background meant the soil side of things was fairly easy to understand."

Working in the packhouse for the three months of the picking season fits in well as it coincides with a quiet time on the orchard.

"I love it. It's a really good change. I go from nine months of the year working by myself or with another one or two people to a pretty dynamic environment for a couple of months."

He says there is no doubt there is pressure.

"The site managers have always been really good in not putting undue pressure on us. They aren't standing over our shoulders saying 'you've to go pack so many bins'.

"We always know we need to go as fast as we can and we've got to stay within Zespri's guidelines, but not lose fruit for the grower as well."

He loves the interaction of the packhouse.

"Last year we had people from all over Europe, the States, the UK, numerous countries in Asia, India and Nepal. Because you're together for so long, while you don't get to know anybody really well, you do get to meet a big variety of people and I love that side of things as well."

Dougal's responsibility starts when the bins of fruit arrive at the shed.

"We get a list of what we are going to be doing that day. In terms of running the machine, my direct responsibility is to set the speed, set the different sizes. It's my hands-on job to run that machinery and the electronics to the best of its ability."

Overarching that is the need to make sure everyone is doing their job right, he says.

Kiwifruit sales booming in China, Japan

Kiwifruit marketer Zespri says latest sales to China are tracking at a record $500 million, while Japan looks set to make it a double, earning another half a billion dollars.

The two countries are Zespri's biggest customers. Most of the kiwifruit sold there in the 2017-2018 season was grown in New Zealand, with supply from Zespri-contracted growers overseas, including in Japan, supplementing demand.

Zespri's new gold fruit varieties have been a big hit in the Japanese market.
Zespri's new gold fruit varieties have been a big hit in the Japanese market.

Zespri spokeswoman Rachel Lynch said financial results for the 2017-2018 season were still being finalised but China and Japan were expected to bring in $1 billion equally between them. Zespri's total sales in 2016-2017 were $2.3b.

The Mount Maunganui-based company has committed to more than double annual sales revenue from New Zealand and its overseas orchard outposts to $4.5b by 2025.

Lynch said the indicative $500m of sales to China, where the fruit originated and which today was a Zespri competitor, compared to sales of $446m in the 2016-2017 season.

The sales comprised 14.6 million trays of New Zealand gold fruit and 7.9 million of green. Sales to China were topped up from overseas Zespri-contracted orchards, with 1.1 million trays of gold and 0.5 million of green.

For Zespri chief executive Dan Mathieson, Japan is a particular sweet spot, after sales leapt by nearly six million trays to 24.4 million in the two seasons between 2014 and 2016, easing to 23.6 million trays last year.

While Mathieson said Zespri's new gold fruit varieties, which replaced the gold variety Hort16A ravaged by disease from 2010, had been a big hit in the Japanese market, green fruit was holding its own there.

New Zealand-grown green fruit accounted for 11.7 million tray sales, with gold fruit at 12 million trays. Gold fruit sourced from Zespri's growers in Japan contributed 200,000 trays to latest Japan sales.

Mathieson attributed the Japan sales spike to Zespri's effort to understand what consumers want and to the new variety SunGold.

"More and more they say they want ready-to-eat fruit they can eat on the go. And they want the health and nutrition value. SunGold has the attribute of being convenient to eat and it brings a sweeter taste," he said.