The labour strain on growing strawberries

Employees such as Darien McFadden’s – who are all New Zealand residents – are very hard to come by these days.

A Waikato strawberry grower and sector representative says the biggest challenge to operating a successful business in his industry today is staffing.

Darien McFadden, who has worked in the industry for 20 years and took over Strawberry Fields on Woodside Rd, Matangi, from his parents seven years ago, feels it’s up to the Government to provide more staffing options.

“It is imperative that there is easier access to more workers,” says Darien, whose family have been growers for the last 35-odd years.

“Four decades ago it was enough to be a good horticulturalist and grower, but now you also need to be a good business manager, good at recruiting and retaining seasonal staff, and good at marketing and selling,” says Darien, who is a Strawberry Growers NZ executive director.

The McFadden’s farm 24 acres of strawberries. They employ five people year-round, a core group of 25 every harvest season for planting, deflowering, bedding and pre-season maintenance jobs and for three-four work blocks during winter, and a total of 120 people from November to January – the height of the season.

Handled twice

Darien says strawberries have to be handled twice as they are picked and packed by hand. The only automation available at this time is a forklift for moving bins and conveyer belt to move them along in the packing shed. Internationally, there’s research into further automation for the strawberry industry, but it’ll be 10-15 years before the technology is available in New Zealand.

“Years ago, when my parents ran the farm, getting employees was easier. Unemployment levels were higher and so more Kiwis wanted the work and more people were immigrating to NZ and looking for work,” says Darien.

Some of Strawberry Field’s core employees have been working with the McFadden family for 15 years and recommend friends and family as pickers. However, many of these core employees are getting close to retirement age – and Darien worries there are no replacement options coming through.

Other recruitment pools are recent immigrants, who he says are great workers and sometimes stay longer than a season and become core workers, but usually use the job as a means to establish themselves and move to something else. Then there are people on working holidays or university break; and jobseekers who often hear about the work through Work and Income NZ. Other pools are retirees who want summer work, people on probation, high school students and community groups.

Not enough people

“We try to offer flexible hours to accommodate people. A hardworking picker can make up to $1000 a week, but it’s hard physical work, and seasonal. There are often just not enough people to do it.”

Darien knows of strawberry growers who’ve been able to only pick three-quarters of their planted land because they couldn’t access the staff required. One couple he knows of was forced to leave 250 tons of strawberries unharvested last year. Another has left the strawberry growing business entirely. “Making decisions like these is gut-wrenching stuff; the opposite of the goal.”

The best money is in the export market, but requires strawberries to be picked every two days – for the domestic market the requirement is every three days. Darien says he’d like to be able to export more of his produce, but he would need access to more employees.

He says New Zealand’s horticulture industry is dependent on its Recognised Seasonal Employers scheme, which brings workers into the country from the Pacific Islands to pick and pack fruit. The Government recently increased the RSE worker pool by 1550 to a total of 16,000 in 2020/2021 – but the scheme’s timeframes are difficult to work with, and outside the capabilities of many small and medium sized farmers, says Darien.

“Our season is underway now and we can’t just click our fingers and get people over here from the islands. There are processes which need to be addressed a couple of years in advance for growers to become Recognised Seasonal Employers – and you need to be a certain size for this to be a viable option anyway.”

Two-part solution

Darien suggests a two-part solution: Working Holiday Visas dedicated to horticulture work; and WINZ processes that would allow workers to re-access the Job Seekers Benefit without too much bureaucracy, cost and delay when the season ends.

“This would make seasonal work much more attractive,” says Darien. “WINZ’s current policies are prohibitive for many would-be employees to do seasonal work, particularly those with dependents.”

And while it’s been traditionally essential to have strawberries for a Kiwi Christmas, Darien says today’s consumer expects them on retail shelves during the whole of daylight saving. “Growers want to deliver, but can only do so with access to an adequate labour pool.”

He predicts that due to lack of labour and additional costs of recruitment, strawberries will be very expensive this year. 

“All I want to do is employ people, pay my taxes and have a bit leftover for myself and my family.”

On September 26, when Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced a two-year in-crease to the RSE quota, he said the move “will help address industry concerns that a lack of certainty on RSE numbers makes it hard for them to plan for labour needs and accommodation requirements”.

Coast & Country News approached the Minister’s office for comment on this story but did not get a response by the publication’s print time.


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