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Wednesday, 19 January 2022 07:25

Finding back-up for backpackers key for the apple sector

Written by  Peter Burke
Apple and Pears NZ chair Richard Punter says the sector needs to work hard to get more New Zealanders to work on orchards to replace backpackers. Photo Credit: Paul Sutherland Photography. Apple and Pears NZ chair Richard Punter says the sector needs to work hard to get more New Zealanders to work on orchards to replace backpackers. Photo Credit: Paul Sutherland Photography.

The apple industry needs to work hard to get more New Zealanders to work on orchards to replace the backpackers that, until Covid, provided a significant proportion of the sector's workforce.

Chair of Apples and Pears NZ, Richard Punter, says everyone in the sector is going to suffer from the shortage of backpackers this coming season. He says while the final numbers on this year's apple crop are not yet out, the word around is that it's going to be a bumper one.

Punter says many growers are doing some innovative things to attractive people to pick their apple crops by providing such things as accommodation.

"We at Apples and Pears can only encourage and facilitate on that one," he told Hort News. "We are not directly involved and despite all that is being done there will still not be enough people to pick the crop but we can only do our best."

Punter says the good news is that there will be upwards of 1,400 RSE workers available this season and that will be a big help. He says these workers who are from the Pacific Islands will start arriving January, in time for the harvest.

"That puts us back to pre-Covid levels. We are still talking to the Government and Immigration NZ, who are being very helpful - so from that point of view things are okay," he adds.

Punter says the RSE workers are highly-skilled individuals who have good hand to eye coordination and can pick fruit quickly and to the high specifications required.

"If you are picking apples you have to be fit and agile and want to earn. If you are all of those things you are going to earn good money," he explains.

Punter believes NZ has become a very urbanised society and many of these skills simply don't exist today.

Looking to the current season he says the same problems that occurred last year are likely to rear their heads again. He points to the fact that there are essentially three group of growers - large, medium and small and the smaller orchardists that worry him the most.

"The big guys will soldier on and the second group will do it a bit tougher but they will be there," Punter told Hort News.

"But it's the third group - the family orchards where the catastrophic damage gets done. I don't mean this in a critical way. But they don't have the financial resilience ro see themselves through these situations.

"I remember years ago when I lost my whole peaches crop to frost. I was just stunned that in 45 minutes the entire crop was gone. I was lucky because I didn't do that for a full time living," he says.

Punter reckons the larger orchardists are able to build accommodation for pickers, but that comes at an astonishing capital cost and is outside the range of the smaller growers.

He says despite the influx of RSE workers this season there is still going to be a shortage of people to pick the apple crop and more work still has to go into attracting New Zealanders to work on the land.

A Sassy Little Number!

A new apple variety, starting to be grown in Nelson and Hawke's Bay, is initially destined for the export market.

Next Generation Apples, a collaboration between growers Golden Bay Fruit and Hawke's Bay-based Taylors, owns the global licensing rights for the new apple called Sassy.

Described as crunchy and firm, with "sweetness and attitude", brilliant red skin and "zing", Sassy was developed from Scifresh, Fuji and Sciros apples by New Zealand crown research organisation Plant and Food Research. It was commercialised by Prevar New Zealand.

Small volumes of the apple are being grown in Nelson and Hawke's Bay and will initially be exported for sale in China and Vietnam. However, some of the apples are also being held domestically as samples for interested growers.

Next Generation Apples chief executive Evan Heywood says while Sassy wouldn't be available for New Zealand consumers this year, it is likely to be in the future as more growers took the variety on and volumes increased.

Sassy was an early harvest variety, being ready for picking around mid-February in the Nelson region, about seven to 10 days before Royal Gala apples. Heywood says this presented a commercial advantage.

"If you get into the markets early with new season apples there's a premium there. It's a good way to kick your season off."

Heywood believes Sassy's firmness gave it a "snappy crunch" with a long shelf life. He says the new apple variety also had high levels of anthocyanin - a flavonoid with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

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