During the Covid-19 lockdown Dame Susan Devoy, now semi-retired, added "kiwifruit packing" to her already colourful CV.

The former New Zealand squash champion, also known for her previous roles in politics, received an outstanding reference after a two-week stint packing kiwifruit at Apata Packhouse, south of Katikati.

Apata Packhouse managing director Stuart Weston said it was a real thrill to work alongside Dame Susan, or "Sue" as printed on her name tag.

"She handled packing like a champ! She is hardcore, a straight shooter with a real sense of humour, proving that fifties are the new twenties."

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Devoy was one of many Kiwis and visitors impacted by Covid-19, taking up kiwifruit work for their own reasons. Going into lockdown, Devoy said, she was keen to avoid growing lazy, and wanted to get outdoors and meet new people.

She wanted a job to save some extra cash to support her family if needed and couldn't pass up the challenge to beat her sons' previous record at their kiwifruit jobs. Past experience picking kiwifruit was enough to point her in the direction of Apata Packhouse.

"I could tell that people who recognised me were wondering what on earth I was doing there. Some thought I was doing undercover research, while some didn't know who I was at all and I didn't mind that," she said.

"That's the great thing about the industry, there's no special treatment."

Apata Packhouse south of Katikati. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services
Apata Packhouse south of Katikati. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services

After successfully completing 10 days of 12-hour shifts packing and grading kiwifruit, the 56-year-old dame is under no illusion that the job is easy.

"While I am a hard worker, the days can be tough and long and by the end of your shift you're pretty knackered."

In hindsight she said the work wasn't as bad as she thought.

"It was definitely a learning experience for me and everyone else in the family. One of my sons learnt how to use the washing machine, for example, and dinner had to be ready by the time I got home from my shift."

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Surprised to have completed 110 hours of work, Devoy said she enjoyed her time in the kiwifruit industry more than she expected. In her opinion, the little gestures of gratitude from the employer went a long way, and meeting new people and hearing their stories was a clear highlight.

Sungold kiwifruit being packed at Apata. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services
Sungold kiwifruit being packed at Apata. Photo by Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media Services

"I met many ordinary New Zealanders working in extraordinary circumstances.

"One was a mature couple in their 70s who joined the harvest every year, my floor supervisor worked two jobs to support her family, there was a newlywed tourist couple who were meant to work in the ski fields and a group from Taiwan whose plans were disrupted by coronavirus.

"I have great respect for people at Apata and elsewhere, working hard and doing what they have to do for themselves and their families."

Devoy joked she was surprised to not get promoted to a clipboard role, but saw plenty of work opportunities available for staff who were willing to take it.

"There's always work available in the industry. I think flexibility and a stronger focus on mental health is key to getting more of the local workforce involved. I had a quick packing induction but most of the learning was done on the job.

"With packing, you need to be fast and consistent, but when mistakes were made help wasn't too far away and there were plenty of old hands to help when needed."

Devoy said the experience was a catalyst for getting her mojo back. "I've realised I'm too young to retire and now I'm looking for my next challenge."