Northland kiwifruit growers hit by a double whammy of a labour shortage and Covid-19 restrictions are scrambling to pick a record crop before the fruit drops from the vines.
A deadline of 5pm yesterday for packhouses and orchards to finalise plans for preventing spread of the virus came as the number of confirmed cases in Northland rose to four.
Yesterday's 85 new confirmed and probable cases across New Zealand brings the national total to 368, with 37 of those already recovered. Recovery is defined as being symptom-free for 14 days.
Eight people, including one in Northland, are in hospital with one of those in intensive care, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said.
Nationwide a record kiwifruit harvest of 160 million trays is predicted this season — that's just under 5 billion individual kiwifruit or more than 500 million tonnes — with more than 5 million trays due to be picked in Northland.
Horticulture, along with other forms of food production, is an essential industry but the level 4 alert means growers and packers have to follow a raft of new protocols, such as ''social distancing'' of fruit pickers and sanitising of harvest bags.
Preventing the spread of the virus in packhouses, where staff normally stand close together as they sort the fruit, is even more challenging with workers required to be at least 2m apart. Protective screens are also being considered.
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New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson said growers and packers had until 5pm yesterday to register with the Ministry of Primary Industries and explain how they would manage the risk of transmission and ensure staff safety.
Businesses with fewer than five people on site didn't have to register but still had to observe the 2m distancing rule.
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A few weeks ago the industry had been staring down the barrel of a labour shortage, but the need to space packhouse staff further apart would reduce the number of people who could work at any one time. That could mean slower processing, Johnson said.
''At this stage it looks like they'll get the fruit off the vine in time but it's a bit of a moving feast. We'll certainly be working very hard to make sure we do. We've got a lot of demand internationally so we really want to send it off.''
Johnson said the world wanted kiwifruit right now because of its high vitamin C content.
Other measures being taken include starting the harvest early to spread the peak and reduce the risk that fruit doesn't reach its markets if, for example, shipping shuts down.
This season's expected record harvest is due to favourable conditions plus an expansion of kiwifruit orchards.
Nationally only about 10-15 per cent of the crop has been picked so far.
At peak the industry normally requires about 20,000 workers, about half of whom are New Zealanders with the rest backpackers and overseas workers on the Recognised Seasonal Employee scheme.
Most backpackers have, however, gone home and only about 1300 RSE workers arrived before borders closed.
Just two weeks ago Seeka needed another 300 staff for its Kerikeri operations alone.
Last year 5.1 million trays of mainly Sungold kiwifruit were picked in Northland, pumping $76m into the region's economy. The industry has about 350 permanent employees in Northland and more than 600 seasonal workers.