OPINION:

If ever there was an industry that exemplifies New Zealand's ambition to grow our export-led wealth, it is horticulture.

2019 will be a significant year for New Zealand horticulture because exports are forecast to exceed $6 billion for the first time.

In just five years, the value of exports has almost doubled, thanks to growth in shipments of kiwifruit, wine, apples and pears. We're exporting more squash, cherries, onions, avocadoes and blueberries.

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The previous National Government committed to strong export growth and the current Coalition purports to be just as committed. So why are many growers fuming?

Well for a start, they're struggling to find workers. This is a perennial issue and the reason National expanded the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme in 2017. The Government lifted the RSE cap last year but that didn't go nearly far enough in a season some are calling a perfect storm of big crops and a worker shortage.

There can be few things more depressing to a grower than to have fruit ripe for the picking and no-one to pick it.

Growers take on locals when they can and the industry runs a number of programmes designed to attract workers, but with unemployment low there just aren't enough Kiwis available.

Harvesting and pruning are intensive, short-term tasks that require about 30,000 workers. Typically about a third of these are foreign workers employed under the RSE scheme. It doesn't help to have Regional Development Minister Shane Jones telling growers that they can fix the shortage by innovating, improving working conditions and managing their "human capital".

Jones seems completely disinterested in helping growers even though he claims to be the champion of the regions. Growers aren't asking for cash or Government resources. They just want some flexibility in immigration laws for 3-6 months to harvest our valuable crops.

Horticulture is experiencing substantial growth with very strong demand in overseas markets based on our favourable growing conditions, low pest status and high quality branding.

Horticulture has comparatively low chemical and water use, high labour and a product the world can't get enough of. This is a recipe for success. In Hawke's Bay and Nelson, apples fuel the economy just as kiwifruit does in the Bay of Plenty and grapes in Marlborough.

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These are natural products that require intense human intervention in the harvest process. We're a long way off being able to use automation. Tree technology is changing but there is no obvious breakthrough to develop a growing system that suits mechanisation of harvest while growing produce that satisfies global consumers.

RSE workers are now commonplace in the industry. Workers largely from the Pacific Islands work in orchards and vineyards for up to six months each year. This has proved to be transformational for horticulture but also has injected massive resources into Island economies

The apple and pear crop is expected to be 600,000 tonnes this year and the Government has allowed an extra 1750 RSE workers into New Zealand. It isn't enough. With harvest to begin in February the Government has two urgent tasks:

1. Declare a seasonal labour shortage to allow tourists to help with the harvest and reduce stand-down periods for Kiwis who are in benefits. This proved very successful in 2018.

2. Remove the annual RSE allocation regime. Growers need greater certainty to allow investment and accommodation decisions to be made.

We need some nimble thinking from Government to allow this industry to grow. Instead of taking pot-shots at growers, the Government should be doing all it can to ensure a record harvest gets to those high-value overseas markets and that the rules and the infrastructure are in place to ensure growth continues in years to come.

* Lawrence Yule is the National MP for Tukituki and the party's horticulture spokesperson.