A looming labour shortage on the back of covid-19 worker limitations could see New Zealand crops of strawberries and asparagus left unpicked this season, meaning higher prices come summer.

Strawberry Growers New Zealand said its members will be hit both by the absence of backpackers and workers registered under the recognised seasonal employer scheme, resulting in fruit being unpicked and "rotting in the ground."

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Chair Tony Rakich told the primary production select committee on Thursday the industry could expect 15 per cent less fruit. "Reduced planting was probably not an option for the majority of growers, as by the time the covid response was underway, fertiliser and plants had already been ordered." In many instances those decisions were made during the prior season, he said.

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Rakich said labour supply was also "easily now the biggest issue" for strawberry growers, particularly given the fruit's highly seasonal nature, with planting from April to July and harvest and packing taking place between September to March – but with a peak of September to Christmas time.

With 160 growers, the NZ strawberry industry is small by global standards, but it employs more than 2,400 seasonal workers, who tend between 13 million and 15 million plants, the vast majority of which are in the Auckland area.

The ratio of employees to plants is about five to seven full-time staff per million, growing to between 50 and 120 staff during the season, depending on the grower profile.

Of its seasonal staff requirements, 400 RSEs were registered with strawberry growers, most of whom were on the six farms with more than one million plants.

Rakich said the relatively low RSE numbers in strawberries in comparison to other sectors, notably wine and kiwifruit, was "partly of our own making."

He said it was partly due to being "slower adapters than some other industries, and partly due to a determination to employ every Kiwi we can before resorting to RSEs."

This combined to contribute to a labour shortage situation which during the past two years has been "so precarious, some crops have been left to rot in the ground due to insufficient seasonal labour availability."

Critical to market

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In its written submission to the MPs, the Asparagus Council said RSEs made up about one third of its seasonal workforce, with the industry's five biggest growers – responsible for 90 per cent of NZ's 5,000-tonne asparagus crop – employing about 134 RSE workers last season.

Asparagus farm Mangaweka Asparagus, which rostered 50 RSE workers in 2019, said imported workers were critical to its ability to get asparagus to market.

"Covid-19 and current restrictions at the border have presented some unique challenges, meaning RSE workers are either being repatriated home in the hope that the skilled workers will be able to return in September for spring crops, or currently working on another NZ crop with a view to being able to move to asparagus harvest in spring."

Rakich said the industry would take "pretty much anyone who is breathing" this season. However, while accepting that more people will be looking for work than previously, it remains unclear how many will be willing to adapt to physical, seasonal work, he said.

Table top planting

Strawberry Growers executive manager Michael Ahern said the industry was adapting to those physical constraints by putting their crops at waist height.

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He said the 'table-top' planting enabled the use of an older workforce that might find it tough to constantly bend and pick from the ground.

"However, this is only now making its way through the industry as it is expensive, so we think it is many years away from being commonly used."

He said another challenge in the use of RSEs, was building enough accommodation. "Growers are prepared to build but growers also need certainty in respect of RSE allotments and the caps."

Rakich said minimum wage was also a major concern. "If you are a returning worker you'd earn about $23.60 with us, but for first-time employees, who may not be as efficient or productive, we may actually need to top up their wages, because they may be below the picking numbers."

- BusinessDesk