A government mental wellness programme for Hawke's Bay growers has been launched amid a predicted plunge in crop export earnings in the region.
New Zealand Apples and Pears Inc expects a 7 per cent drop in crop export earnings for the Bay amid a shortage of labour, despite a predicted increase just two months ago.
In January, the industry was forecasting a 2 per cent increase in crop compared with 2020.
But according to the latest NZAPI crop estimate for 2021, the industry now expects the export share of the crop to be around 1,076,000 cartons – 7 per cent down on last year.
Nationwide, the industry was forecasting a gross national crop of 558,672 metric tonnes in January – a 5 per cent decrease from the 2020 harvest.
The export share of the gross crop was predicted to be 374,751 metric tonnes (20.8 million cartons) – 7 per cent down on 2020.
But the industry now expects the export share of the gross national crop to be around 347,718 metric tonnes or 19.3 million cartons.
This is three million cartons (14 per cent) below 2020 and represents a $95 million to $100m year-on-year reduction of export earnings.
Richard Bibby, of Thornhill Horticultural Contracting, said a shortage of labour has significantly reduced the number of apples picked in Hawke's Bay.
"Some of the crops have been a little lighter also, so that could have played a part in it," he said.
NZAPI chief executive Alan Pollard said the drop reflects a shortage of available labour and significant hail events in the Nelson and Central Otago regions.
"As we near peak harvest, it has become increasingly clear that we will not achieve those initial forecasts", he said.
"Labour availability on orchards and in our post-harvest operations is well short of numbers needed by the industry despite doing all we can to attract New Zealanders into work.
"In addition, the fruit size is coming in smaller on average than we forecast," he added.
In Hawke's Bay, braeburn is the most significantly affected – down 40 per cent on 2020 levels – while royal gala, which remains the variety with the largest share of exports nationwide, is forecast to drop 11 per cent.
Pollard said New Zealand had a global reputation for reliability, consistency and quality.
"Demand is strong in our key markets, but we remain concerned about continuing disruption to international shipping schedules and port congestion.
"Many of our members are under considerable stress and we all need to look out for each other."
Bibby said growers are suffering financially and mentally from the decrease.
"There is a genuine heartache for the majority of growers over the lack of workers," he said.
"Growers have had to make some difficult decisions on where the best dollars to spend are."
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor announced on Friday the rollout of mental wellness events and workshops for fruit growers facing tough times across Hawke's Bay, Gisborne, Tasman and Central Otago.
The support package, a joint initiative between government and industry, will include a workplace-based wellbeing training programme and see the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry of Social Development contribute almost $350,000.
O'Connor said the scheme will initially be offered in Hawke's Bay - one of the regions where Covid-19 has made it harder for growers to find orchard and packhouse staff.
But Act primary industries spokesman Mark Cameron and immigration spokesman James McDowall said the $350,000 package was a "slap in the face" to growers facing losses "in the hundreds of millions of dollars".
"These people don't need workshops, they need workers," Cameron said.
"To get this pitiful news in a week when it's become clear that Hawke's Bay is short of thousands of workers and estimates its apple losses alone will run to between $100m and $200m this year is just sickening."
McDowall said reducing the number of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers from the Pacific from about 15,000 to 2000 is also causing "terrible financial impact" on the countries those workers come from.
"Why the Government didn't expand the managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) when the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) identified it could be 23 facilities – or 3000 beds – larger is beyond me," he said.