By Samantha Gee of RNZ
With harvest season set to kick-off for the horticulture sector in the top of the South Island, orchardists, growers and hop farmers are faced with staff shortages due to closed borders.
It is estimated the region needs 1500 more staff across a number of industries: hops, apples, pears, kiwifruit and pipfruit to name a few.
Valima Orchard business manager Matthew Hoddy, who grows apples near Nelson, said more than half of his 220 employees during harvest were made up of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers and those on working holiday visas.
But February 2020 was the last time that carloads of travellers showed up at the orchard, looking for seasonal work picking apples.
Now he is faced with a shortfall and trying to find enough staff before the harvest kicks off this February.
Quarantine-free travel for RSE workers in recent months had helped to supplement some of the lost labour but there were still spaces left to fill.
Add community spread of Omicron to the mix, and workers needing to isolate or recover from the virus, the problem could be further exacerbated.
"Like a lot of other businesses we've planned for what's coming and we're trying to work around our management plans to reduce the impact that we see from it, but it will make a tight year even tighter."
In Motueka, Mac Hops director Brent McGlashen is gearing up for the harvest which will start at the end of February.
A fifth-generation hop farm, the McGlashens grow around 15 varieties of hops across 115 hectares and during the month of harvest and employ up to 60 people.
McGlashen was confident he would be able to fill the few spots left but said the disruption presented by Covid-19 was concerning.
"The whole spread of this potential Omicron is probably our biggest risk to our business at the moment and I'll be getting our guys pretty much to isolate on the farm ... so we can try to avoid every form of risk we can because the last thing we want to be doing is shutting down."
Weather permitting, it will take about a month to harvest the hops, with staff working six days a week and up to 14 hours a day.
He said it was interesting to see how the industry was coping overseas, friends who were hop farmers in the United States had half of their crews contract the virus during harvest.
"They still managed to limp along and get to the finish line so hopefully we can get through any potential problems and restrictions and get our crop in the bag."
"Literally hundreds of job opportunities"
The Pick Nelson Tasman campaign, funded by industry contributions along with contributions from the Ministry of Social Development and the Nelson Regional Economic Development Agency, aims to attract people to the region and connect them with jobs ahead of the harvest.
Project spokesman Johny O'Donnell said everyone in the horticulture sector was struggling to find staff.
The project is a collaboration between 15 agencies, including Apples & Pears New Zealand, Horticulture NZ, Hops NZ, Freestyle Hops, Wine Nelson, Kiwifruit NZ, Vegetables NZ in a bid to tackle the ongoing seasonal labour challenges faced by businesses.
"We have a really, really high seasonal demand that could never be met by locals, even if every job seeker in the region went back to work and so we're putting the call out that if anyone has been displaced from work due to Covid-19 if they are in between jobs or looking for the dream job but need a job in between, then there are literally hundreds of job opportunities available right now here in the region."
O'Donnell said it was not just seasonal work, there were opportunities for people who are keen to make a permanent move to the top of the South Island.
Job seekers who register for the campaign can browse job listings or seek help from a recruitment coordinator who can match them with the right job, as well as assist with transport and accommodation.