Northland kiwifruit growers are welcoming moves to ease a chronic labour shortage in the horticulture industry by opening New Zealand's borders to workers from three Pacific countries.
This week the government announced quarantine-free travel would be permitted from Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu for workers hired under the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.
Unlike Fiji, which is grappling with a severe outbreak of Covid-19, none of those countries have had community cases of the virus.
Kerikeri's booming kiwifruit industry depends on staff from Vanuatu but their numbers are down by more than half.
Alan Dobbie, Northland business manager for Craigmore Sustainables, said the decision to allow in extra RSE workers was ''fantastic'' news.
''The whole horticulture industry had been in a real squeeze with labour. I don't think it will solve everything but it's a bloody good start.''
While kiwifruit growers had managed to improvise a way through the record-breaking season just ended, that wasn't the case for all sectors. Some apple growers, for example, were forced to leave fruit on the trees due to the picker shortage.
Craigmore has 100ha of kiwifruit orchards in the Kerikeri area with 30ha in production so far. That included former dairy land along Wiroa Rd which will eventually grow 77ha of gold kiwifruit.
Dobbie said the RSE scheme also benefited the workers' home countries.
''It's the best aid New Zealand has ever given to the islands because the money goes where it's needed. Normally aid is government to government, so it goes in the top and a little bit dribbles out the bottom.''
Orchard contracting and packing company Orangewood is one of the biggest employers in Kerikeri with 200 staff in the packhouse during picking season and 100 in the orchards.
In the season just gone it packed more than 2 million trays of mostly gold kiwifruit, up from 1.8m the season before.
Orangewood's head of kiwifruit, Gavin Wood, said he was ''very, very pleased'' more workers would soon be on their way.
The company normally had 45 RSE workers from Vanuatu but was now down to 20, all of whom were in New Zealand when the borders slammed shut in early 2020. Their visas had been rolled over ever since.
Wood said he would like at least 50 RSE staff but the allocation would be decided by the government.
Picking season had ended but there was still plenty of work to do, and knowing extra workers were on the way would allow him to plan ahead.
The company needed local staff and put a lot of effort into recruiting and training them, but had issues with high turnover.
''You can build people's skills if they keep coming, it doesn't matter where they're from,'' he said.
The advantage of RSE staff was that they were in New Zealand purely to work and were highly reliable. They came back year after year so were well trained.
Conditions of the government's move to ease border restrictions include paying at least the living wage — which will rise to $22.75 per hour from September — and providing accommodation for RSE workers.
Wood said Orangewood had always provided accommodation for RSE workers and all staff had been paid at least the living wage since the start of the year.
Kerikeri Fruitgrowers Association chairman Felix Scheibmair said he welcomed anything that made the process of getting RSE workers easier.
''It's certainly been a difficult year in terms of labour. We did manage but it wasn't easy and we worked very hard to work with the local labour force. Some of the larger providers will be working to the 11th hour to get through their pruning programme,'' he said.
Bay of Plenty firm Seeka runs a large packing operation on Kerikeri's Waipapa Rd.
To make up for the lack of backpackers and RSE workers the company, in conjunction with Ngati Hine and the Ministry of Social Development, ran a training scheme to get long-term unemployed into orchard work.
Kerikeri manager Kevin Gordon said up to 70 people went through the scheme with 30-40 per cent of those now employed.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the RSE announcement on Monday in response to what she said was a call from the primary sector.
New arrivals under the RSE scheme would need pre-departure and on-arrival Covid-19 tests but would not have to go through quarantine.
The extra workers are expected to start arriving in September. The numbers are not yet known.
New Zealand normally has about 14,400 RSE workers but the current tally is thought to be around 7000.
National Party leader Judith Collins welcomed the eased border restrictions but said it should have happened ''much, much sooner''.
Last November the Government allowed 2000 workers from the Pacific into New Zealand to help with the summer harvest in the horticulture and wine industries. Of those, only 30 to 40 were believed to have been employed in Northland.