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Covid-19: Fruit industry facing hurdles with harvest due to restrictions

The kiwifruit industry is fighting for survival as it tries to pick and pack the season's crop while enforcing Covid-19 restrictions.

Kiwifruit. Photo: RNZ/Carol Stiles

The apple industry is also predicting problems with at least 10 percent of the crop not likely to be picked.

The nationwide lockdown has come right in the middle of the harvest season.

Mark Hume from Hume Pak 'n Cool in Katikati normally employs 400 to 500 people in his packing shed, and about 180 pickers - all focusing on kiwifruit.

With the two-metre distance rule in place, his cool store will need to reduce staff by half.

He said just getting enough workers would be a challenge.

"People probably can't even come here, they can't travel, so it's getting people on site, a lot of the older people we have said go home, others have chosen to go home. A lot of our qualified, high-calibre locals are not with us, so we have a younger shed, inexperienced, scared.''

Hume said pressure was coming from all quarters.

"Growers want their orchards picked, they want it picked today and not tomorrow. It is very hard in the field, some growers are very supportive but others are just so worried about their livelihood they want the orchards harvested at any cost so we have to quieten them down because some of them will probably break every law there is in desperation."

With only 10 percent of the crop picked, he is worried about the rest of the crop being harvested in time.

"We are fighting like heck for survival and being an optimist I'm not sure we are going to make it because we are going to run out of time anyway, because normally we are doing, let's say 100,000 trays a day. If we can do 60,000 trays a day we are going to be doing well. Add up how many more days it's going to take to get through the production and by that time the fruit could well be falling on the ground."

Waikato kiwifruit grower and packhouse owner Mark Gardiner said the lockdown meant a whole new way of operating.

"Less staff because we are restricted in how many people we can have on-site in proximity to each other, so it is inevitably going to be harder to operate and slower to operate because you can't put the volume through with the lack of people."

Hawke's Bay Yummy Fruit general manager Paul Paynter said the apple harvest was in full swing but he was predicting that about 10 percent of the trees would be left due to not enough pickers.

"Sometimes, unfortunately, the 10 percent is a thing they call the profits but I think we could well kiss that goodbye this year but hopefully, we can get the majority of fruit, in particular, the high-value fruit in and make the best of it."

Tim Egan runs Illawarra Orchard in Gisborne.

He is in the lucky position of having picked most of his grapes, all kiwifruit, and is well into apple picking.

There's still 10 hectares of Envy apples to pick and he is following a novel approach to fit in with the 2-metre rule suggested by one of his workers.

"Instead of picking in every row lets pick every second row so that we maintain that distance and let's put one person, or if people are from the same bubble and the bubble being people that they are self-isolating with, they can pick in the same row, but if they are not from the same bubble they need to be not in the row next door but in the row next door to that."

All growers are desperate for extra workers and will welcome anyone from within their region to help out.

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