Bill English's visit to Kaiaponi Farms near Gisborne soured shortly after he inspected a tray of lemons.

The 150ha orchard grows apples, kiwifruit, feijoas and packs citrus and, because it uses irrigation, would be likely to be caught by Labour's proposed water royalty.

After a quick tour English addressed the packhouse workers, as Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy munched mandarins from a bag.

The economy wasn't "some office block in the sky", English said, but was actually the success of workers like that at Kaiaponi. Spending promises required more money.


"Opposition parties are planning to get it from you."

Then English took questions. He was immediately asked by Robin Lane about why National hadn't lifted the minimum wage by more.

"Now how would you like it if your hourly rate went up $3.75 over a period of nine years?" Lane asked.

"It would be quite a challenge, I've got no doubt about that," English said, as television cameras and microphones moved in closer.

"You have a bit of pressure on you, and that's why we keep these consistent moderate increases flowing through because that's how the floor rises."

"Oh, moderate," Lane said.

The other questions weren't any easier. Simon Clarke asked about a recent workmate who had been turned away from Winz after suffering a heart attack.

"Him and his wife are suffering on the minimum wage, trying to live off one wage. He has been told by a doctor he is not fit to work."


English said eligibility hinges on a doctor's assessment and income. East Coast MP Anne Tolley, accompanying English, said they should come to her and she would see what could be done to help.

Another worker spoke up, saying it wasn't easy for normal people to negotiate such disputes with institutions - and returned to low wages.

"It should be officially recognised in Parliament that the minimum work rate ... it just does not cut it, for the requirements of just basic living every week. It just does not do it. We are lucky if we have got $2 over at the end of each week. It's just a fact."

Then another person spoke up, this time asking about the high cost of food.

"Budget-wise, we can't afford to spend a crap-ton on fruit and vegetables, the stuff we should be eating ... is there any way you can make things like butter, for example, it's cheaper to buy Irish butter than New Zealand butter. Just little things like that."

English said it came down to incomes, and National's political opponents "want to take more tax off you and drop your income".

"I know you'd like to see it rising faster ... the right answer is that this industry is more successful, that we lower your taxes so you do get a bit more."

English had a better reception at the start of the day at the Bushmere Arms, where he was given a tour of the estate's gardens by owner Robin Pierson, including avocado-laden trees and clipped hedges.

There was a pause when English asked who did the lawns, before Pierson told him it was actually the father of Clarke Gayford, Jacinda Ardern's partner.

Dozens of utes were parked out front and inside the National-leaning crowd gave English a good reception as he announced new policy to let young farmers buy Landcorp farms.

One man told English it wasn't right that dairy farmers faced criticism over the environment, when Auckland's traffic was a far worse contributor to climate change.

English ended his speech simply: "we don't need more tax". Nathan Guy then acknowledged "the best sheep-shearing Prime Minister in the world".

"He's certainly someone who has got your backs ladies and gentlemen."

It fell to Guy to wrap things up a few hours later at the orchard packhouse, as the questions on low wages threatened to keep coming.

"I will leave you to consider about how important it is to have a reliable flow of water in your community to sustain jobs," he told the workers. "Not yet another tax proposed by our opponents which will directly impact on this business and your job security, ultimately."