Following the end of a busy fruit-picking season, Hawke's Bay Today reporter Andrew Ashton talks to project management and event management expert and current Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers' Association president Lesley Wilson - the woman who led the Australian Access Action Group campaign that ended with the Government taking Australia all the way to the World Trade Organisation and gaining meaningful access for New Zealand apples into Australia.


What will be the key things for horticulture and ag-based businesses to come to grips with to be successful in the future?

Doing more with less is the key to providing food for the world's ever increasing population. The recent wholesale acknowledgement that there are limited resources (land, water and people), is driving positive change in the efficient use of natural resources and the training and retention of our people.

There has been much talk about the use of robotics and high-tech mechanisation within the horticultural industry but in reality, these technologies are over a decade away. The technology is not there yet and the orchards are, at present, not set up for it.

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What is exciting however, is that training is available to people working in horticulture right from the introductory and apprenticeship levels through to bachelor degrees and beyond.

People will always be an integral part of the horticultural industry, they provide our focus, both being our consumers and part of the whole supply chain – getting the food grown and delivered to the consumer. Horticulture is about people.

How effective do you think the new TPP agreement (CPTPP) will be in boosting Hawke's Bay exporters?

Implementation of the CPTPP will provide benefits to all horticulture exporters in New Zealand. Tariff elimination and reduction in markets delivers direct savings to our growers and aligns us with our competitors, ensuring our products aren't at a disadvantage.

The key factor in CPTPP for horticulture is inclusion of Japan, where 99 per cent of benefit will come from. However, there will also be gains from Mexico over time where there are currently 10-20 per cent tariff rates.

Of significance to Hawke's Bay, tariffs on apples to Japan will be eliminated in 11 years, which will allow direct competition with Australian apples. Other gains (for trade to) Japan include elimination of tariffs on entry into force for kiwifruit, butternut squash and capsicum, in addition to a five and six year phase-out for tomatoes and onions, respectively.

With unemployment at such a low level, what do you think needs to be done to ensure labour shortages can be avoided long-term?

In short, New Zealand's productivity has out-grown its population. If we think about this, it is not surprising because we don't just feed New Zealanders, we feed the world.

We have record low unemployment in all of our horticultural growing region, for example, Nelson was at 2.2 per cent over its peak production time, and I would like to think that the growth in the industry has significantly contributed to the increase in those in fulltime employment.

In Hawke's Bay we do not have enough people to cover our fulltime employee needs and our seasonal requirements are on top of that. We need to think globally.

Firstly, the RSE scheme is a shining light. We would not have a fruit growing industry in Hawke's Bay, or New Zealand, without it. It works for New Zealand and the Pacific region on many levels.

The RSEs come into the region for seasonal work, and leave when there is none. Hawke's Bay is not left with the social problems traditionally seen in the winter months. RSE employees also contribute to the Hawke's Bay economy. Not only do they buy the day-to-day basics while they are here but they also spend a large portion of their income before they leave to go home on items such as fridges, freezers, clothes, food, and so on.

The success of the RSE scheme has underpinned the growth of the horticultural industry in Hawke's Bay and the increase in fulltime employees choosing a career in horticulture.

Secondly, we need to look at restructuring the Working Holiday Scheme. I firmly believe the WHS visa should be a benefit to NZ's economy, not a right of the overseas travellers. At the moment it is the opposite.

Historically WHS workers stayed in the region and worked the entire season, however in the past few years the "type" of WHS traveller that comes to NZ has changed. They only stay working for a couple of weeks at most as they do not need to earn money to fund their NZ holiday. This is of limited benefit to employers.

I would like to see an ag/hort WHS whereby WHS visa holders commit to working six weeks, over the peak demand time, in the various regions that annually struggle to find labour. For this they get an increase in the amount of time they can stay in New Zealand. This type of scheme has worked well in other countries and would be of enormous benefit to our industry and New Zealand.

What is the major threat to the horticulture industry in NZ as a whole?

There is not just one threat but here are the top five. Access to land, access to water, access to labour, biosecurity incursions and in recent times global instability.

Access to Land: protecting our versatile soils is one of the primary objectives of the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers' Association and Horticulture New Zealand. Here in Hawke's Bay we keep a close eye on any Plan Changes passing through the council. We submit on all that involved the Heretaunga Plains and endeavour to keep both councils working within their various strategic objectives. It is time-consuming and expensive for us and we are pleased to hear that both the Hastings District Council and the new Labour Government support our stance

Access to Water: This is a common threat right across New Zealand. This is a limited resource and should be valued as such. However, recent media and opinion pieces equating irrigation with pollution is not only erroneous, it is also damaging to the reputation of a water-efficient and vital industry.

My aim is for all New Zealanders to see the good work that is done with efficient irrigation (minimised waste, maximum uptake) and to understand that irrigation = food production.

Access to Labour: There are two types of employment in horticulture. There is fulltime and there is seasonal. We work hard to provide training opportunities to anyone who wants to work in horticulture at any level. New Zealanders have, and always will, come first. However, as stated, we need additional people, beyond that which New Zealand can supply, over harvest time.

Biosecurity Incursions: Unfortunately these are a fact of life these days. It used to be that our focus was on fruit fly and thankfully we have a well-oiled regime that kicks into gear when we have an incursion. These days much of our focus is on the attractively named brown marmorated stink bug. This is an enormous threat to not only horticulture but to all of New Zealand. BMSB is not only a rural pest but an urban one too. It takes over homes, swarming in spring and effectively making homes unliveable. It is also a generalist feeder, it will feed on amenity trees as well as fruit.

Scientists across the world are working hard to find effective controls for this pest. Currently here in New Zealand we are asking for approval to import a biological control agent, the samurai wasp. The samurai is a tiny wasp, and a good biological control agent. An efficient and effective control agent for this pest cannot come soon enough, not only in New Zealand but worldwide.

Global Instability: We are watching with some concern as increased political instability creates market access issues and undermines the World Trade Organisation. New Zealand relies of the WTO for fair trade access and any limitation on the role it plays will have serious consequences for horticulture.

As you can see while horticulture is in a growth phase the industry is very aware that we need to work hard to maintain the current growth. We understand the challenges we face in the future and are working to mitigate them where we can. Horticulture is about people and we value ours.