APPLE returns have increased 80 per cent over two years "and the train is going to get bigger", says Pipfruit New Zealand business development manager Gary Jones.
"It is going to steer the whole community."
In 2013 a tonne of fruit averaged $1538 when exported but this year would be about $1800, helped by currency fluctuations.
In 2010 Hawke's Bay export receipts were $203 million and this year anticipated to be $363 million - an 80 per cent increase.
The national export value in 2012 was $342 million and in 2014 $536 million - a 57 per cent increase.
But profits are rotting on trees because there are too few pickers.
Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers' Association president and orchardist Lesley Wilson said with good prices "everything is worth picking this year".
"As an orchardist we want to get value out of every apple produced, but with the labour shortage we couldn't get around all of the orchard," she said.
"We need to make the best of the good years because we have suffered a few bad ones, so leaving fruit on the tree is never a good idea."
Pipfruit New Zealand CEO Alan Pollard said the lost opportunity was widespread. At the weekly meetings for harvest managers, hosted at the industry organisation's offices in Hastings, all were making choices.
He said fruit had to be picked at the right time to prevent "bleeding value".
"They were having to make a decision on sacrificing the lower-value fruit to ensure they got the higher value off on time," he said.
"Last year we picked every fruit but this year we haven't. They were working seven days a week with as many hours as they could fit into a day."
The season started disastrously with widespread hail. Whole blocks were written off.
Mr Jones said 2 million cartons were expected to be lost "but what has happened is the hail damage was in spring and early summer and has disappeared and coloured over". "A lot of that crop has gone to export."
Crop damage was never advertised because it led to "poor behaviours" by overseas competitors, badmouthing the New Zealand harvest to steal business.
This year became a "fantastic high-coloured vintage crop".
Next year's Hawke's Bay crop will be 5 per cent bigger but "the real biggie" was 2017, estimated to be 19 per cent bigger than this year's.
"We can't pick either of the next two years' crops at the moment."
There were 3100 foreign RSE workers this year - making up 9000 nationally - the majority New Zealanders and the balance working-holiday visa holders.
"This past season we didn't have enough workers," Mr Pollard said.
"While we made a lot of money we lost a lot too. There is fruit everywhere left on trees there couldn't be harvested. That has cost us."
Orchardist Jos Dames said profit was about harvest timing.
"If we miss one week of the three-week Royal Gala harvest, we have essentially missed over 50 per cent of the value," he said.
"The value multiplier of the apple business is driven by the harvesting timing."
He's not sure how he'll cope in the future "short of me having a whole lot of children".
In his experience increased wages did not equate to increased labour because people still failed to turn up for work.
Skill level an issue
Mr Jones said in the past Hawke's Bay had more resident seasonal labour, such as freezing workers.
"There was a lot of understanding of the community about harvesting apples but of course we are doing a lot bigger volumes now."
Pickers can take more than one season to develop. Long gone are the days of trees stripped bare. Today each tree is harvested several times using colour as a guide. It's a skilled job - the tone and intensity of foreground and background colours different for each variety.
"People still think apples grow on trees, but it's not that simple. Unfortunately we have government thinking the same way, saying it's just an apple on a tree.
"We are the world's most sophisticated tree fruit industry with highly evolved varieties, systems, safety and sustainable-practice programmes.
"We have highly-skilled requirements right the way through. We stopped looking at apple trees in romantic ways a long time ago."
Compared with competitors per-unit costs are low, giving New Zealand the top ranking in industry analyst Belrose International's Competitiveness Rankings, ahead of the United States.
Employing New Zealanders was "top priority" but Work and Income could not supply enough.
"We had direct vacancies sitting there for people to go to work in orchards but we had 10 times more people on working holiday visas applying then New Zealanders."
It is unlikely the number of visas for foreign workers will be increased and a scheme to bring unemployed people to Hawke's Bay did not go well. By week four half of them had left and of those remaining half required their wages topped up to the minimum wage because they were slow.
Nonetheless every employer that was involved in the scheme will be involved with more people next year.
Mr Jones said demand for apples continuesd to outstrip supply, with Asian markets burgeoning. Apples were viewed as "an exotic taste" and New Zealand's was higher quality and safe.
"The fundamentals have totally shifted over the last five or six years. Clearly Asia is sucking every apple we have [that] we can sell."
Widespread market access is thanks to the Apple Futures programme, resulting in New Zealand fruit with ultra-low residue levels, levels approaching organic produce.
Europe was "awash with apples" yet New Zealand earned a premium of several-Euros per carton.
"They want us on their shelves because we remove the risk of Greenpeace coming in and embarrassing them."
Limited-access Asian markets was "where the money is", such as Japan where New Zealand is the only foreign apple seller thanks to its lack of pests and pathogens.
"We try to drum into the heads of the decision makers that those things are value-added."
Coveted access to premium markets could be lost overnight but thankfully Hawke's Bay is not a major port of entry giving protection from incursions, such as the current Queensland fruit fly scare in Auckland.
"The biggest economic disaster Hawke's Bay could ever have, out of anything globally, would be one Queensland fruit fly turning up here on a rugby league group to watch the Melbourne Storm."
Hawke's Bay land in apple production increased 8 per cent over the last three years and looked set to continue by about 5 per cent annually.
Logan Stone director Boyd Gross said higher returns had lifted land and orchard values.
"The price gap between good parcels of land or good orchards versus inferior land and inferior orchards has grown considerably with the difference significant when comparing some properties," he said.
"The saying of comparing apples with apples has never had so much meaning."
An increasing number of properties were being prepared for sale.
"This is the second wave, as during 2013 and 2014, a number of transactions occurred under the radar by large corporates consolidating holdings and securing fruit supply. "These buyers are more selective and less aggressive with very selective interest if the right parcel presents itself. Therefore the listings coming to the market are targeting the mid-size and smaller integrated fruit company or investor markets."
The lifestyle/owner-operator market was "still limited".
"Sale volumes have changed significantly from the early 1990s to mid-2000s, when 50 to 70 units would sell a year. Since the mid-2000s, the number of sales has been 20 to 32. This is partly due to the lower returns but partly due to the major consolidation that has occurred in this sector with integrated fruit companies controlling larger estates. This trend is likely to continue. To date in 2015 we have 10 settled transactions."
Projected growth in Asian markets shows room for up to 1 million more tonnes of apples by 2020, securing good prices for New Zealand apples.
Mr Jones said Australia hasn't been forgotten. Legal entry was gained but parochialism kept the door shut.
"Australia is very much on our radar, but we don't want to tell them what we're doing. I wouldn't give up on Australia - it is the biggest local market we are going to have."
Mr Pollard said Hawke's Bay was always going to be good at apples.
"Nature has given us this amazing advantage of the best growing conditions in the world, so we have this natural advantage straight away.
"Our orchardists have this unique relationship around the land, around sustainable practice, all verified, and we have invested heavily in orchard technology to produce the safest, freshest, tastiness fruit with low human intervention."