Lack of labour a concern
Someone upstairs has flicked the switch from drought to flood. I have seen here in my own province of Nelson, 50% of our annual rainfall in the first two months of the year. January and February are meant to be the driest months, too.
How can the weather change so much in such a short space of time? Those doubters of climate change need to come and live on the land for a season. Clearly the dramatic swings will have an impact. New Zealand, which is regarded as a stable marine climate, has had more than its share of dry periods and storms in the last 12 months. Many parts of the country have broken records for dry days in a row and now a series of cyclones have done their best to disrupt communities.
For some in my region there have been cloud bursts that have devastated orchards and gardens. My heart goes out to those battling the mud and tangled mess that has resulted.
I always enjoy the harvest period as all the planning, hard work, and risks in growing the crop come together. There is always some nervousness that all the seasonal staff who have signed up for the season actually show up. Then reality bites with how much crop we really have out there. No matter how much counting and sampling we do there is no subsitute for actual numbers. This season a number of regions are concerned about the lack of available harvest staff. No matter how much planning, advertising and publicity we have failed to attract enough staff. With many regions at record low unemployment there is just not enough local people available to help harvest. There is too much risk for growers to just hope the people will roll in the gate. How do we overcome this? For those in the RSE [Recognised Seasonal Employer] scheme it has been a godsend to be able to import staff to do the “heavy lifting” of the harvest, despite its added cost. This has freed up additional local labour and backpackers for those operators who don’t have the infrastructure to support the added cost and resources needed to be a RSE employer.
In the future advanced technology like robots will emerge in both the field harvest operation and the post harvest sector. This doesn’t help us today but does give us hope for the future. In the meantime many will work longer hours than they should to deliver another successful harvest.
We are getting better at taking chance out of our marketing. For many of us long gone are the days when we would grow a crop for a season, harvest it, pack it and send to the market to see what return we can get money wise. Today there is plenty of planning and contracts written prior to a plant going in the ground or a tree or vine pruned. The risks are too high and
often the markets too delicate to have crops grown on spec. Growers can’t afford to have a year’s worth of toil, all of the growing costs incurred, then harvested and packed only to find it doesn’t meet specification, market demand or be wrong in timing.
Some of us have multi-year contracts with prices negotiated and all we have to do is deliver. Sounds easy but with slim margins and the quirks of “Mother Nature” we still can end up on the wrong side of the ledger.
Horticultures’ diversity, sound strategic planning by many (product groups, growers, packers and exporters), calculated risks taken and New Zealand’s mostly benign climate have helped us become a successful industry. Added to this is the trust in our produce and systems that means we usually get a premium in both traditional and emerging markets.
During February the Horticulture New Zealand board visited growers in the Auckland/Pukekohe region.
As always it was good to get out onto growers’ properties to see work in the field and the local challenges faced. Many of the issues we observed and heard about are similar around the country including:
• The encroachment of housing onto critically short Class 1 land
• Cross boundary effects created by housing next to productive land
• Shortage of staff at critical times of the year for harvesting and packing
• The burgeoning weight of compliance to deal with
• Access to adequate water, and the quality of the water
• Lack of national templates to deal with environmental issues, employment law and health and safety.
Other issues that were more strategic:
• Addressing succession and estate planning
• Climate change and the increase of extreme weather events
• Developing better working relationships with local councils. It was very pleasing to see positive aspects of horticulture:
• Growers en masse responding positively to environmental challenges and making a difference to bygone poor practices
• Looking after their soil
• Technology advances and adoption of research and development
• Understanding and responding quickly to customers’ and consumer needs
• Being better rewarded for their efforts with recent market returns
• Growers supporting growers and their local communities.
As we get to know more with good science based knowledge, clear market feedback and stable returns we can invest back into our people, businesses and communities to make horticulture even more successful. There are many challenges that we all face as growers but at the end of the day the only thing that pays the bills is the crop we each pick. each of you So I wish harvest. successful a