Fruit growers across Northland struggling with labour shortages fear a lack of locals and international backpackers due to border closures will exacerbate the already difficult situation on farms.
The kumara harvesting season started this week while kiwifruit will kick in around the middle of March but growers are working with a number of agencies to fill the skilled and mostly unskilled vacancies.
Kaipara kumara grower Grant Suckling normally employs 18 backpackers during the harvesting season but has currently only got five, and their visas run out in June.
However, he said there have been fantastic new programmes, especially a pilot by Harvest Northland in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) training people to get into fruit picking.
The pilot includes one month of pre training before getting them into work. Suckling, who is part of the initiative, says it will benefit not just kumara growers but also those that need workers in their avocado and kiwifruit orchards.
Suckling said 80 per cent of kumara growers in Kaipara would start harvesting this week and the real pressure on staff would be felt by about the middle of next week when they'd have a better gauge on whether the current number of employees was enough.
The harvesting will continue for about two months.
"There's potential for wet weather when the cost of harvesting goes up and it will be passed on to our customers."
Some of his workers are from outside Northland, such as Daryle Ferguson from Wairoa, in Hawke's Bay, his 20-year-old granddaughter Shalia Leaf and her fiance Chedyn Burton, from Foxton.
Ferguson, 64, resigned from his job at a timber framing company in Lower Hutt during Covid and his granddaughter convinced him to start work on the kumara farm.
"I've never done gardening before but am enjoying it on the farm. Everyone is so welcoming. Dargaville is full of working people and we've already made a lot of friends here," he said.
The trio started kumara harvesting seven weeks before Christmas and are enjoying the work.
Leaf was referred to Suckling by MSD.
"This is my first job. Most of the places I apply to need a CV but I haven't worked anywhere before. It's just a really good experience out here. The only way people can find out if they are good at a job is to do it," Leaf said.
Another kumara grower, Doug Nilsson, has workers from Whangārei and elsewhere in the mid-north and is paying them $25 an hour, including holiday pay.
"I have 20 but I can do with another 20 workers, and it's going to get worse in the next three to four weeks. Kaipara needs over 1,000 more workers. As we get rain, we'll need to put more people on the harvester."
Nilsson said he was the only local grower who used workers from the Pacific islands under the Government's Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.
Normally he has 13 such workers but currently has only three from Vanuatu.
Last week, the Government announced people in New Zealand whose visitor visas expire on or before March 31 would get an extension for an additional two months.
During that extension, which will be applied from the date of expiry on their current visa, they will need to apply for a new visa to stay longer.
"The problem is not that locals are incapable of working but they just don't want to work,"
added Nilsson. "They make a lifestyle choice. Why work when you don't have to?"
Nilsson said the push was on to get the kumara harvested between now until April because if the autumn rain came early, the crop would be lost.
Kerikeri Fruitgrowers Association chairman Felix Scheibmair said the general realisation was that the horticulture industry would be working with less overseas workers this harvesting season.
There was a push for local workers and the industry was working with MSD and Hort NZ, he said.
Kiwifruit harvesting begins around mid-March and will run for two months. Winter pruning will follow until August.
"There will be a shortage of skilled as well as backpacker-type workers. As for local workers, it is just about getting them in the right positions," he said.
John Dawson, an avocado grower in Mangawhai, said avocado growers have not been as much affected as other fruit growers.
"A lot of avocado picking is done through hydro ladders so it requires trained not random labourers. However, there's a requirement for more picker resources."
Avocado harvesting in Northland starts in June and runs until February.