A record kiwifruit season has harvest $76 million worth of fruit in Northland. But industry leaders warn demand for workers will outstrip supply if more are not trained to pick, pack and tend to the vines.
The record crop is now headed for overseas markets – if not already there - with 150 million trays packed nationally, worth $3.4 billion.
Kerikeri's crop was worth $55m and Whangārei's $21m - both record amounts.
Seeka is the largest kiwifruit player in Northland and chief executive Michael Franks said the company packed more than 1.7 million trays in the region, predominantly SunGold.
''The Northland harvest started early, was well planned and completed on time delivering growers the optimal harvest for their fruit. The harvest was challenging with new harvest maturity standards making it difficult to clear SunGold fruit for harvest, and there was a lot of shape issues in the Hayward fruit right across the industry,'' Franks said.
''There is increasing number of new plantings in the region, with SunGold and Zespri Red kiwifruit varieties coming into production along with increasing volumes of avocados in the coming years."
Seeka only packs a day shift and it could significantly increase the fruit it handles by extending shift patterns, he said.
The company works with Ngāti Hine and MSD to attract and train as many available New Zealanders into the horticulture sector in an effort to combat widespread labour shortages.
''This has paid dividends with a trained and available workforce available across the horticulture sector, however the rapid growth in horticulture across the region is likely to mean that the demand for workers will outstrip supply and labour shortages are likely to continue.''
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc. CEO Colin Bond said the sector weathered the labour crisis that affected the country's horticulture sector well – "but that was down to a combination of good practice and good fortune".
Bond said 2021 was better than last year's Covid-distrupted season but continued border closures meant Working Holiday Visa (WHV) holder numbers were down significantly and Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) worker numbers were limited, meaning a heavier reliance on Kiwis filling the roles.
He said mixed weather through the season – "it was a very wet season and a long one" - slowed the harvest.
"But that simply means the fruit is on the vines longer and increases the pressure to get it picked at the optimum time."
More work was also done this year to raise awareness of the career possibilities and long-term work available in the industry, Bond said.
"We don't just need workers for the harvest, we need them for crucial winter and summer maintenance work to ready the vines for the next year's crop. For that, we've retained our 'taster' courses which give people an introduction to the roles and a chance to have a go."
NZKGI would be reviewing and evaluating its 2021 recruitment programme and assessing the new challenges to identify how the labour uncertainties could be reduced next season.
"We see kiwifruit, along with the other horticultural crops, needing certainty of labour supply and one way we can encourage this is by supporting employment of a workforce that can be on the orchards almost year-round."
Bond said the labour shortage issue is crying out for solutions to create certainty and RSE workers from the Pacific Islands are critical for the near future.