Northland courgette grower Brett Heap has just made a decent profit selling 6ha of gently rolling market-gardening land, and he couldn't be more angry.
"Disgusted" is the word he uses. "My business is finished. You can't run a business if you can't get the workers. And that's a problem this Government just isn't interested in."
Heap, an outspoken critic of the current policy to throttle the seasonal labour programme to bring in foreign horticultural workers, has made good on his vow of last season, to throw in the towel on growing after 40 years in the industry.
Of his roughly 26ha of productive land, Heap has sold about a fifth (the sale is now unconditional and settles later this month), and he's in the process of sowing the remainder in grass to run as a lifestyle block with a few dozen head of cattle.
Heap is 78 and had hoped to pass the business to his son, now in his 40s, a mechanic, who's been working with him since roughly 2016.
"Instead, he's just finishing his last week," Heap says. "I've had to make him redundant."
In recent years, Heap's spring courgette crop has topped 400 tonnes, making him one of the country's most significant growers of the vegetable.
But last year was different and Heap says there's no relief in sight. In 2020, he curtailed planting significantly in the face of the uncertainty thrown up by the Covid-19 pandemic.
He'd expected to rely on about 11 Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers from Thailand, but that changed when New Zealand closed its borders in March.
When the labour-intensive harvest rolled around in September and October, Heap says he simply had "no hope" of getting experienced workers familiar with the arduous work.
"The few RSEs who were here didn't have the experience I needed and hiring local workers has just been chaos. It was a shambles."
Heap says he had a young woman who turned up to work with a boyfriend who followed her around the field all day: "He couldn't keep his hands off her, I wasn't employing him, he just showed up. I had to ask him to leave."
He had a teenage boy so nervous and aggressive he couldn't accept simple picking instructions without tensing for a physical fight: "It turned out he came from a lot of violence at home, no dad, and an uncle who was beating him."
Heap says he had workers who left without notice; workers who failed to turn up; and workers who tried the tiring, repetitive job of walking, stooping and cutting for a few hours only to call it quits.
All up he says he employed close to 50 pickers in the season, and he still lost about 20 per cent of his crop because of the shortage of productive workers.
In November and again in the new year, Heap says he contacted the local constituency office of his Northland MP, Willow-Jean Prime, looking for help. "That was the last straw," he says, "I never even got a response."
Contacted for comment, Prime's office said Heap's emails were never received.
Heap also shakes his head at Government ministers' often-repeated suggestions that his industry needs to pay more to attract workers.
"I do pay more when the productivity is there," Heap says. He starts seasonal employees on minimum wage, $18.90 last year. "But you can't just pay more when you're getting workers who don't stick around. Workers who are so unproductive you're not making money. It doesn't add up."
Heap said in previous seasons (particularly when courgette prices are strong) he's paid workers higher rates at the end of the season, as a kind of bonus. He declined to specify the rates but said this attracted more favourable tax treatment than an outright bonus.
In March, Francie Perry, another stalwart of New Zealand horticulture and an outspoken critic of the Government's current policy, confirmed she too has left the industry over the extreme labour difficulties of last season.
Mike Chapman, the outgoing head of HortNZ, said his organisation has put a number of proposals to the Government to expand MIQ capacity to allow more workers into the country. "We've taken our ideas to the Government and the Government has made it very clear they're not prepared to entertain that."
He said it's been "a hard season and a hard year" but he's not aware of a broader trend in grower departures from the sector: "those I've contacted and who have contacted me are pushing on and working on how to manage the coming season."
New Zealand horticulture typically relies heavily on foreign workers for field and orchard work, a core of whom arrive under the RSE scheme, largely from Pacific Island countries, but also from Asian countries including Thailand and the Philippines.
Last season, however, there were fewer than 7000 RSE scheme workers in New Zealand when harvesting began, and the number dropped rapidly as many of these workers, stranded from the previous season, were able to return home.
In January, 2021 an additional 2000 RSE workers were allowed into the country to help bring off the country's most lucrative harvests: apples and kiwifruit. But HortNZ has said the total was always more than 5000 short of the numbers needed.
Apple growers said the labour shortage cost some 14 per cent of the export crop, worth a foregone $95m-$100m. Kiwifruit growers fared better, with a more valuable product than many in horticulture and worker recruitment that emphasised higher wages and flexible hours.
Last month, the Government announced more space in managed isolation facilities for foreign workers (a result of quarantine-free travel with Australia). Between now and next March, 2400 RSEs will be allowed into the country.
The numbers, however, remain vastly lower than before Covid-19 restrictions, and while Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi has said the Government is "committed" to the RSE scheme, it is not clear if, and to what degree, a current rethink of immigration policy will shrink it.
Faafoi and colleague, Economic and Regional Development Minister Stuart Nash, have claimed the rising number of low skill migrants to New Zealand before Covid-19 (including RSEs, backpackers on working holiday visas and foreign students on visas with work rights) suppressed wages and discouraged businesses from investing in technological improvements.
A spokesman for Faafoi said he was helping to deal with fallout from the Canterbury flooding and was not immediately available for comment.