Relying on local pickers has allowed Quick Pick Ltd to thrive through the uncertainty of Covid-19.
The Whakatane orchard, owned by Craig and Lani Julian, grows nine hectares of boysenberries and 12.5ha each of Hayward and SunGold kiwifruit – of which 2.2ha is organic.
“We’re in a unique position because we’re located close to towns with high rates of unemployment,” says Craig.
“So we’ve always employed locals and have never really had to advertise for pickers. We have people from the area calling us months in advance.
“Many people who work for us live close enough to walk or bike here, so we’re accessible to a lot of people who need the work.”
The timing of last year’s first nationwide lockdown worked in Quick Pick’s favour, as having the 100 people needed on-orchard to pick the boysenberries under Covid-19 restrictions would have been a much trickier operation.
Luckily, the blueberry picking season is in December, and the majority is completed in just two weeks.
“We used to pick over a longer period but it’s really hard to get people on board over Christmas and New Year’s. So instead, heaps of people come here at once and go hard for only two weeks.
“We spend about $300,000 on wages for our boysenberry pickers. It makes us feel special that the money is going into the local community in time for Christmas.”
But Quick Pick’s kiwifruit operation wasn’t as immune to the effect of Covid-19. The picking season, which sees 60 seasonal workers come onsite, took place during the March-April 2020 lockdown.
“When lockdown hit we thought: ‘If we can just sell half of this crop, we’ll be happy’ – but the season ended up being amazing.
“Working through Covid-19 was kind of fun in a way, because we were all learning how to do things differently together. Everyone was keen to be a part of the solution.”
By the time winter pruning came along, lockdown was over. The good season result was far from expected. “We had a list of things we could do from one to 10 in case we needed more staff, from running a pick-up van to drive-in accommodation, but we didn’t have to do any of it.”
Since then Craig and Lani say they haven’t had any picking enquiries from people who lost their job due to Covid-19.
“For people who lost their jobs, I guess it would be a big mental shift to go from living in a big town or city to somewhere small and completely new, to pick fruit for such a short period of time.
“If it was me, I’d pack my family in a caravan and go around the country during the picking season – it would be a profitable trip away for a family unit.”