Horticulture has always thrived in New Zealand producing some of the world's best kiwifruit, apples, avocados, tomatoes, root crops, citrus and more. But the industry says it is experiencing a seismic shift in terms of production, technology and the necessary skills required. And it says the labour force - or lack thereof - has become the single biggest hand-break to industry growth.

"You probably can't have a conversation with any horticultural producer in the world and not talk about labour," says Nikki Johnson, chief executive of kiwifruit growers group NZKGI.

"It's a widespread issue across all crops and all countries."

Kiwifruit is one of New Zealand's most visible industries struggling to combat a major labour shortage, and work is now being done year-round to attract staff for the autumn/winter harvest.

Advertisement

The industry says its revenue is expected to increase significantly to reach $4 billion by 2027, by which time an extra 7000 seasonal workers (in comparison to 2017 numbers) will be required to get fruit off the vines.

Across the country, fruit and vegetable growers, packhouses, exporters and marketing companies are all looking for ways to raise the profile of horticulture and change public perceptions about what these jobs entail.

Jerry Prendergast, president of United Fresh (New Zealand's only pan-produce industry organisation), said the horticultural game had changed but people were largely unaware of the career opportunities that now existed.

Prendergast said farms and orchards across the board were installing better systems and equipment to become more efficient, sustainable and profitable.

This created the need for an educated, highly skilled, tech-savvy workforce with people and management skills.

President of United Fresh, Jerry Prendergast. Photo / Supplied
President of United Fresh, Jerry Prendergast. Photo / Supplied

"It's not about having people dig more and pick more" he explained.

"It's about investing in technology and equipment - an example of this is the Hira Bhana and Co state-of-the-art two-row top-lifting carrot harvester. The future of our workforce is having people who are able to manage, operate and service that type of machinery, and know-how to grow.

"Sustainability requires a greater skillset in terms of management also. It's really quite a change and it's an exciting time for people to be entering the industry".

Advertisement

Prendergast said there are plenty of opportunities for people to prove themselves, take on areas of responsibility and quickly rise through the ranks of any branch of the fresh produce industry.

Large growers such as Nelson-based JS Ewers are running their own in-house graduate programmes to ensure they develop the next generation of leaders with the necessary skills to help the business succeed.

"We need to change how we look at our labour workforce issue and be far more open to where the opportunities are" Prendergast said.

"And there are plenty when you start to line them up. Whether it's tree-based growing, root crop growing or a hot house facility."

New Zealand's grower base is also ageing, creating plenty of room for young people to enter the industry now and climb the corporate ladder in the coming decade.

"Automation is the future but there's room for multiple labour workforces within that. There's huge opportunities for a skilled labour force who are required to operate the equipment and to have the management skills to run the business. It's not Cyril the farmer and three blokes doing the job anymore. These are big growing operations that require serious skill sets now."

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Andrew Keaney, T&G Global Limited's Managing Director of NZ Produce, agreed that horticulture was suffering from an image problem.

"People think of horticulture as driving a tractor or picking apples. There is a shortage of those workers and certainly they're incredibly important to the industry. But if you have a look at how much science and technology is now involved, growing produce today is really precision farming.

"It's not just putting the seed in the ground and hoping it'll grow. The science that has gone into discovering what seeds to plant, what varieties to grow, and the technology around efficient use of water and irrigation… If you're into science, technology, sales, marketing or finance, it's a fantastic industry, yet it's not widely talked about at secondary school as a major career opportunity".

T&G Global now made a concerted effort to hire graduates when roles became available as a way of getting more young people into the industry at the beginning of their careers.

"We aim to bring people in from other industries as well in order to grow the overall talent pool. When you do this, you're exposing their whole network of friends, family and acquaintances to an industry that they potentially haven't previously had contact with, and I think that's where a great opportunity lies for horticulture" said Keaney.

Most companies now recognise they need to develop a great internal culture and create a supportive workplace in order to attract and retain staff.

T&G Global did this by running literacy and numeracy programmes for staff who needed help in this area. They also celebrated the cultural diversity among staff members with regular team get-togethers and traditional meals.

Keaney said an opportunity existed to better connect with millennials in particular, who liked to work for ethical companies that were a force for good.

"We attract a lot of people out of the FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) industry and the overwhelming comment we get is 'isn't it great to actually be selling something that's good for people and good for the environment.'

"Our purpose at T&G is creating healthier futures through fresh fruit and vegetables and that's a really good example of how horticulture should be profiling ourselves better."

In Gisborne, the citrus industry is battling to retain its market share of the local available workforce.

Wayne Hall, chairman of Citrus NZ, said the situation wasn't as dire as kiwifruit or apples because citrus was a year-round crop without peak harvest pressures.

However, growers must still be well organised to get enough pickers and must compete with other crops, especially on the pay rate front.

"It's all going to come to a bit of a head in the next few years in Gisborne because a lot of new plantings have gone in of other crops and that's just going to put pressure on the citrus growers to get enough labour" he warned.

"Generally workers will go wherever there's higher money being paid".

One regional initiative to address the problem was a new government-funded website called Tipu, where horticulture and viticulture jobs across the region can be advertised.

"It's been set up and funded by MSD to look at attracting people at all levels into horticulture," Hall explained.

"You can go on if you're looking for workers, or if you're looking for a job. It's a tool to match up employers and employees. It's designed specifically for the Gisborne region but now other regions are looking to establish something similar."

NZKGI CEO Nikki Johnson. Photo / Andrew Warner
NZKGI CEO Nikki Johnson. Photo / Andrew Warner

Consistency of work across a region is a key challenge facing the kiwifruit industry in the Bay of Plenty, where 80 per cent of the national crop is grown.

Avocados dovetail nicely into the kiwifruit harvest and the two industries increasingly share the same labour pool.

Aside from those two crops, NZKGI's Nikki Johnson said work was also under way to collaborate with the likes of forestry and tourism to provide a variety of seasonal work for locals to mix and match.

"In the kiwifruit industry we're very reliant on locals so it's not considered a feasible option for large numbers of people to travel between regions. It is for the backpacker population, but for New Zealanders that's not really good practice. So, what we need to do is look for solutions around consistency of work in local regions".

Compared to citrus or apples, kiwifruit could only hang on the vine for a short period before it spoiled, so spreading out the harvest period beyond April – June wasn't possible.

Labour analysis conducted by NZKGI, the industry body which represents 2500 kiwifruit growers, showed low unemployment rates, fewer people on working holiday visas choosing to work in kiwifruit, the short-term nature of the roles on offer, and outdated
preconceptions around pay rates and worker welfare were the major factors behind the current staff shortage.

"I don't think anyone's got a silver bullet around that at the moment," Johnson said.

"There's obviously the conversation around robotics but for kiwifruit, it's such a small crop internationally that the return on investment is really difficult to prove for the amount of money you would need to spend to develop the IP because sales into the industry would be limited to New Zealand and Italy".

Johnson pointed out that technology and automation already played a major role in packhouses where two thirds of the kiwifruit workforce was based.

"There are other aspects like crop estimation and maturity testing where technology is likely to play some part in the near future but I wouldn't like to speculate on how long it would take for robotics to move into picking and pruning which are the two hardest areas to master."

A fulltime labour co-ordinator has now been hired by NZKGI thanks to funding from the Ministry of Social Development and the Provincial Growth Fund, and a $100,000 labour attraction strategy is currently being rolled out.

Social media is a key component, and resources have been created to attract different groups of New Zealanders and backpackers into the industry.

"There are perceptions around horticulture being a dead-end job and just about fruit picking, so it's about making sure we're exposing young people to all the potential job opportunities they can have in kiwifruit – and their friends and families too."

Johnson said it was vital to develop different labour pools for different needs.

"Our permanent labour should be New Zealanders that we attract into the industry and we train and retain. Seasonal-wise, we are always going to need an element of migrant backpacker labour to get us through those peaks so it's not a 'one size fits all' approach. We have to be very creative about how we do things.

"Ultimately, if you provide a good place to work, you will attract people, so that's what we all must do."