Tuesday, 16 November 2021 14:55

Zespri adapts to labour shortages

Written by  Peter Burke
Zespri is expecting a shortfall of 6500 workers to pick this season’s kiwifruit crop. Zespri is expecting a shortfall of 6500 workers to pick this season’s kiwifruit crop.

Zespri is ringing in major changes in its systems to deal with an expected shortfall of 6500 workers to pick this season's kiwifruit crop.

Chief executive Dan Mathieson says the shortfall in workers is 2000 more than a year ago due to the Covid pandemic. He says the forecasts is based on the reduced numbers of backpacker in the country, which normally make up about a quarter of the total workforce.

Mathieson says the problem could get worse depending on Covid and whether there is widespread absenteeism in the workforce, which has been a problem in the past and is a concern this season.

"We are also dealing with a situation with a larger crop as more orchards come into full production. With this and the lack of workers there is a risk to our ability to fully deliver the season," he told Rural News. "With our ambitious growth targets, we need approximately 1000 additional workers every year for the next five years."

Mathieson says that in order to pick and pack this season's crop, Zespri has had to make significant 'operational' changes.

These include a plan to try streamline the process and reduce the labour input required. This involves bringing forward additional volumes of SunGold kiwifruit ahead of demand. There will also be a shift towards greater bulk packaging, which according to chief global supply officer, Alastair Hulbert, will create efficiencies and make better use of the availability of capacity and workforce.

"Using bulk packing requires a little over 50% of the labour required to pack layered packs and has a direct impact on supplier packing capacity."

Hulbert says they are also making adjustments to the taste and maturity clearance systems for SunGold that will enable fruit to get picked earlier. He says there will also be changes to the requirements around size 39 Zespri SunGold fruit.

Finally, Zespri is reviewing its shipping schedule to see whether it is possible to increase shipping volumes earlier in the season in a bid to reduce cool-store capacity restraints. Hulbert says the shipping problems that occurred last season are expected to continue in 2022.

Fewer New Plantings

Zespri has halved the amount of SunGold kiwifruit licenses that people can bid for this season.

Chairman Bruce Cameron says it had originally planned to release 700 hectares of SunGold licenses but has now cut this to 350 hectares. He says there will be 350 hectares of Ruby Red kiwifruit also up for tender but says the Zespri board has decided not to release any Organic SunGold kiwifruit this season.

Cameron says these decisions have been the subject of extensive consideration by Zespri over recent months, and are based around ensuring sustainable value for growers, through management of supply volumes aligned with projected future market demand.

"The plan for the 2022 licence release reflects our focus on ensuring we can provide strong and sustainable returns to growers by ensuring demand continues to exceed supply," he told Rural News. "We remain incredibly confident in the market outlook, with global demand for our fruit continuing to strengthen, along with the value we are able to capture for growers, if we maintain our approach of building market demand ahead of supply."

Cameron says the kiwifruit industry is confronted by a range of challenges, primarily driven by Covid-19 which continues to have an impact across their value and supply chain. He says an interim slowdown in licence release allows Zespri to address this, while ensuring they have some time to watch the rapidly evolving Covid-19 situation unfold, including the reopening of New Zealand to the world.

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