Agricultural contractors are warning about a severe shortage of skilled machinery operators for the upcoming harvest season.
However Apple and Pear NZ chief executive Alan Pollard reckons this is 10-15 years away. He says there is a move to introduce elevator platforms, which means that people who might have physical challenges can come into orchards because they don’t have to climb up and down ladders.
“There is work being done on robotic harvesting, but this is a bigger challenge for apples than kiwifruit,” he told Rural News.
“An apple tree you will pick three or four times, and you have to make a judgement on the colour, so you just can’t strip a tree,” Pollard explained. “The technology to do this is challenging and it means that a grower has to change the whole structure and layout of the orchard to fit the new technology.”
At present, apple trees are three dimensional. However, to meet the needs of technology, trees would need to be grown as a two dimensional ‘wall’ and closer together.
Pollard says about 10% of the orchards are being changed over to this system each year, but it will take a long time before all are ready for technology when it arrives.
In the meantime, the industry will continue to rely on a diminishing local labour pool and see if it can get the Government to take a more pragmatic approach to the RSE scheme and allow more overseas workers into NZ.
Pollard says the RSE scheme is highly regarded internationally and is transforming the New Zealand industry and providing much needed aid to Pacific nations.