Filipino dairy farmworkers are propping up the industry in Horowhenua as farmers struggle to find locals fit enough to don a pair of gumboots.
Some farmers had struggled to find staff ahead of the current season, while others would employ more staff if they could find someone reliable and drug-free that could get out of bed.
It wasn't as if farm work was poorly paid. Most entry-level workers were now on annual salaries of more than $50,000, and could work their way to earning more than $100,000 in some cases as a farm manager.
Federated Farmers president Geoff Kane said Filipino staff were being employed in the absence of New Zealanders who, for a variety of reasons, weren't willing or able to wake up early enough to bring the cows to the shed.
Kane said he had heard of eight farmers in the Horowhenua region who had sold their herd in recent times, due largely to an absence of suitable staff.
Waitarere Beach dairy farmer Simon Easton had advertised online in early October for a worker to fill a position that came with a house, and had only just recently filled the role, days before the start of the new season on June 1.
"Most applicants were just looking for a house and didn't want to milk cows," he said.
Easton had been fortunate to have good staff in the past, but continuing to source good workers from within the community was getting harder.
He now has three Filipino workers on the farm. He said they were hard workers and valued team members. One worker that started in 2017 hadn't slept in or had a sick day once.
"They turn up. They fit into the team. They are happy and reliable and work hard," he said.
Easton said one staff member had worked as a qualified nurse in the Philippines earning $12 a day, while another was previously a computer technician. The other had managed a farm with 10,000 pigs back home.
It was higher wages and the ability to provide for their families that brought them to New Zealand.
"What you come to realise is that it's a helluva sacrifice for some of them to be here. The reason they are here is to provide for their families back home," he said.
"It's very common in their culture that the grandparents look after the grandchildren while parents earn money, and one day their children will do the same.
"The sad thing about the current situation is that usually they save up their four weeks of holiday and go home during our winter while the cows have dried off, but due to Covid-19, they haven't been able to go home.
"There is an element of homesickness. You can Skype, but it's not the same, is it ... not being able to give a loved one a hug."
Rostered farm work had changed in recent times. Working hours and days varied from farm to farm, but most seldom worked more than 55 hours a week now, with contracts ranging from five days on and two off, to 11 days on and three days off.
While farm work required early-morning starts, there was always an hour break for breakfast, and then again at lunch.
Koputaroa farmer Nathan Guy said a few seasons ago he struggled to fill middle management positions with someone reliable with a clean driver's licence, clean criminal record, and who was drug-free.
"I found that really frustrating," he said.
Soon afterwards, two Filipino farm workers joined the staff. Guy said there was a growing Filipino community within Horowhenua and many farmers now had migrant workers on staff.
"They integrated into the existing operation incredibly well ... we are fortunate to have a very loyal team of staff," he said.
Guy said dairy farm work had better pay and working conditions now than ever before.
"Remuneration has come a long way. Every dairy farmer is aware there is a skill shortage and wants to look after the overall package," he said.
"That's the way to keep a man, or woman."
But with calving season just around the corner, Guy said he was still on the hunt for an assistant farm manager.
"It hasn't helped that the borders are locked," he said.
Levin farmer Craig Burnell had sold off his dairy herd this season and was now farming beef. If he had found the right person to manage the farm, he would have likely kept the herd.
"Getting staff was part of it," he said.
"But I would absolutely recommend dairy farming to anyone - no hesitation. It takes effort, but you can do well out of it.
"If you were a young fella now straight out of school, the wages aren't bad."
Manawatū Filipino Farmworkers Association Edwin Lamug said there were now more than 200 Filipino farmworkers in the Manawatū region alone.
Lamung said visa conditions demanded workers were paid an hourly rate of $25.50, earning in excess of $65,000 a year. Every worker he spoke to was happy with their employers and the environment.
Some had come to New Zealand via Saudi Arabia, Japan or Israel, where they had gained industry experience.
Some farm jobs came with a house as part of their employment contract, recognised as being worth $10,000 a year. In some cases there were extra benefits, too, like firewood or meat, as koha.
There was still a dearth of farmworkers, though, despite the increased migrant workforce. It was estimated that the New Zealand Dairy industry could do with as many as 4000 more workers nationwide.