Otago Daily Times


CEN­TRAL OTAGO It is easy to get ab­stract and cere­bral about wine but be­yond the ro­man­ti­cism is the grunt. Cen­tral Otago vine­yards rely heav­ily on two labour forces and the Covid­19 pan­demic has put paid to both. Cen­tral Otago bu­reau chief Jared Mor­gan rep

- Business · Otago · New Zealand · Queenstown · France · Bendigo · Queenstown · Pisa · Bourgogne · Bannockburn · Andy Wilkinson

HOT, hard and fast. Those three words sum up pre­dic­tions for this sea­son’s grape har­vest.

Time is of the essence; speed and ef­fi­ciency are key.

The next few months de­pend on weather con­di­tions, the cadence of the grow­ing sea­son and labour.

Cen­tral Otago’s viti­cul­ture sec­tor says the Recog­nised Sea­sonal Em­ployer (RSE) scheme is the most ef­fec­tive form of New Zealand for­eign aid to Pa­cific na­tions whose stock­in­trade — tourism — has been dec­i­mated by Covid­19 de­spite be­ing Covid­free.

As in hor­ti­cul­ture, RSE work­ers and back­pack­ers are the back­bone of the viti­cul­ture work­force.

For now, there is lit­tle or no ac­cess to ei­ther.

Work­ers across the re­gion’s sprawl­ing vine­yards form a mix: some em­ploy­ers choose RSE work­ers, some back­pack­ers, some both.

They all agree the lack of those work­ers will cre­ate pres­sure felt by all.

Near Alexan­dra, Mount Dun­stan Es­tates vine­yard man­ager Chris­tine Rasmussen over­sees more than 280km of vines over 62ha.

Mrs Rasmussen man­ages 42ha for share­hold­ers and 19.6ha un­der con­tract man­age­ment, grow­ing grapes to sup­ply to some of the largest wine­mak­ers in New Zealand.

Typ­i­cally, 20­25 back­pack­ers com­ple­mented the seven full­time staff in­clud­ing her­self, she said.

Find­ing staff had been hit and miss.

‘‘I started ad­ver­tis­ing in late Septem­ber and had 22 to start on Tues­day [to­day].’’

Only eight were avail­able when she fol­lowed up, she said.

‘‘The Gov­ern­ment is say­ing we need to use the labour force avail­able.’’

Her ques­tion was ‘‘from where?’’

Alexan­dra had 5000 peo­ple, low un­em­ploy­ment and few young peo­ple.

‘‘While economies of scale means we have more equip­ment than most, key jobs in the vine­yard still re­quire sub­stan­tial labour con­tent.

‘‘Not hav­ing th­ese jobs done in a timely man­ner, or done at all, will have a ma­jor flow­on ef­fect, po­ten­tially risk­ing har­vest.’’

The lack of RSE work­ers would send rip­ples through the whole in­dus­try and into the Pa­cific, she said.

‘‘It’s not just af­fect­ing us, it’s af­fect­ing them as well.’’

In Cromwell, that is a point that has Timbo Deaker scratch­ing his head.

He is co­owner of Viti­cul­tura with Ja­son Thom­son. Both men are viti­cul­tur­ists with more than 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the in­dus­try.

To­gether they run a viti­cul­ture con­tract­ing com­pany that has served the sec­tor for 16 years and have 20 to 30 clients in Cen­tral Otago, into Queen­stown Lakes Dis­trict and Waitaki, pro­vid­ing labour and gen­eral man­age­ment.

The op­er­a­tions man­ager said the dif­fer­ence be­tween good viti­cul­ture and bad viti­cul­ture was time.

That meant labour and he and Mr Thom­son fore­saw the prob­lem.

‘‘We saw this com­ing about six months ago.’’

It also meant telling clients their vines this sea­son might not be as well tended as they should be.

‘‘I think a lot of vine­yards will look a bit hairy.’’

Mr Deaker said the pres­sure on labour even pre­pan­demic had led to a shift in ap­proach.

‘‘Our ef­fort over the past 18 months has been to re­duce labour with a fo­cus on mech­a­ni­sa­tion.’’

Lock­down had been an op­por­tu­nity to ‘‘force in­no­va­tion’’, he said.

That did not com­pletely re­place a hands­on ap­proach and as a cham­pion of the RSE scheme, Viti­cul­tura had is­sues with the de­ci­sion to not al­low RSE work­ers back into New Zealand.

‘‘It’s the best form of aid New Zealand can pro­vide to the Pa­cific — it’s ac­tu­ally a mo­ral obli­ga­tion.

‘‘They [RSE work­ers] know our vine­yards bet­ter than we do.’’

Do­maine­Thom­son viti­cul­tur­ist Si­mon Gour­ley knows labour is­sues well, oversee­ing re­cruit­ment on the com­pany’s vine­yard at Pisa.

It is a fam­ily­owned or­ganic wine pro­ducer which along­side its vine­yards in Cen­tral Otago also op­er­ates from Bur­gundy, France.

In that fam­ily­owned spirit, Mr Gour­ley’s ap­proach to staffing fol­lows the same lines — to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment to keep peo­ple com­ing back.

‘‘We used to use a lot of back­pack­ers but in the past cou­ple of sea­sons we have had more stu­dents from univer­sity.

‘‘That sort of snow­balled and we have a pretty solid group of stu­dents.’’

He had used RSE work­ers in the past and said they were an ‘‘ex­tremely valu­able re­source’’ to the in­dus­try.

‘‘One RSE worker is worth at least two back­pack­ers.

‘‘They work at least 50 to 60 hours per week and if this [Covid19] hadn’t hap­pened, we would have looked at get­ting RSE work­ers.’’

The viti­cul­ture in­dus­try com­peted with hor­ti­cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly cher­ries, be­cause work­ers could earn more, mean­ing even pre­pan­demic there was pres­sure on the labour mar­ket.

Pick­ing time at the vine­yard co­in­cided with Level 4 lock­down and Mr Gour­ley saw the im­pact.

‘‘The French were called home. The em­bassy said to ‘get out’, they left their cars — ev­ery­thing.’’

At the Sir Clif­ford Skeg­gsowned Akarua ‘‘home block’’ in Ban­nock­burn viti­cul­tur­ist Mark Nai­smith over­sees op­er­a­tions and those at five other sites across the Cromwell Basin.

He said the in­dus­try had con­cerns and was aware it had ‘‘many thou­sands of po­si­tions to fill’’.

Com­pet­ing crops such as cher­ries posed a chal­lenge.

Like Mr Gour­ley, he said this sea­son was about cre­at­ing a ‘‘good cul­ture’’. The value of word of mouth and the power of so­cial me­dia should not be un­der­es­ti­mated in at­tract­ing and re­tain­ing work­ers.

An abil­ity to of­fer ac­com­mo­da­tion was an area where ‘‘or­chardists are ahead of the wine in­dus­try’’ but Akarua was ad­dress­ing that and had re­source con­sent to build work­ers’ ac­com­mo­da­tion.

That was too late for this sea­son, he said.

Akarua had a crew of 16 RSE work­ers but they re­turned home for ‘‘their well­be­ing and fam­ily rea­sons’’.

Fill­ing the void left by the men be­cause of their in­abil­ity to re­turn was the is­sue.

Em­ploy­ment re­la­tion­ships were formed and New Zealand had ‘‘made a com­mit­ment to th­ese men’’.

‘‘The em­ploy­ers of th­ese men would cover the cost to get them back.’’

The ques­tion of greater mech­a­ni­sa­tion would only go so far as Cen­tral Otago’s ter­rain pre­cluded tak­ing that ap­proach fully.

Ar­gu­ments about pay were also dif­fi­cult, be­cause the wine in­dus­try op­er­ated on nar­row mar­gins, Mr Nai­smith said.

His ap­proach at this stage was to be op­ti­mistic a so­lu­tion would be found.

Misha’ Vine­yard di­rec­tor Andy Wilkin­son with wife Misha owns 57ha at Bendigo, 26ha of which is planted and pro­duces pre­mium wines tar­get­ing the ho­tel, restau­rant and re­sort mar­ket across 14 coun­tries pre­dom­i­nantly in the Asi­aPa­cific re­gion.

The viti­cul­ture labour force in Cen­tral Otago came from two streams, back­pack­ers on work­ing hol­i­day visas and the RSE work­ers, he said.

Work started now and ran un­til May and with no RSE work­ers re­turn­ing, the viti­cul­ture sec­tor was com­pet­ing for a vastly re­duced pool of back­pack­ers — from 70,000 to about 11,000 still in the coun­try.

‘‘For the first time ever we are in a po­si­tion where we are go­ing to be com­pet­ing for labour.’’

The Gov­ern­ment po­si­tion that there would be a large num­ber of New Zealan­ders able to fill the gaps had not been matched by real­ity, Mr Wilkin­son said.

‘‘Our ex­pe­ri­ence has been that in em­ploy­ing Ki­wis we got a higher turnover of peo­ple.

‘‘Ki­wis last a very short pe­riod of time . . . peo­ple have ap­peared for work and then dis­ap­peared.’’

Any po­ten­tial New Zealand based work­force was also lim­ited by mo­bil­ity, he said.

That was some­thing he thought the Gov­ern­ment failed to grasp.

‘‘I don’t be­lieve they un­der­stand.’’

Hot, hard and fast may be the pre­dic­tion for this year’s wine sea­son but for pro­duc­ers the em­pha­sis will be on the word ‘‘hard’’.

 ?? PHO­TOS: JARED MOR­GAN ?? In­no­vate . . . (clock­wise from main) Viti­cul­tura viti­cul­tur­ist and op­er­a­tions man­ager Timbo Deaker with a team of Ni­Van­u­atu work­ers; Misha’s Vine­yard di­rec­tor Andy Wilkin­son; Akarua viti­cul­tur­ist Mark Nai­smith; vine­yard work­ers tend vines be­tween Pisa and Bendigo the Cromwell Basin; a vine­cov­ered hill­side at Pisa.
PHO­TOS: JARED MOR­GAN In­no­vate . . . (clock­wise from main) Viti­cul­tura viti­cul­tur­ist and op­er­a­tions man­ager Timbo Deaker with a team of Ni­Van­u­atu work­ers; Misha’s Vine­yard di­rec­tor Andy Wilkin­son; Akarua viti­cul­tur­ist Mark Nai­smith; vine­yard work­ers tend vines be­tween Pisa and Bendigo the Cromwell Basin; a vine­cov­ered hill­side at Pisa.

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