Promising harvest as apple picking starts

The apple harvest has begun about a week earlier than usual which should help to ease the labour crunch that comes in April.

Despite pleas from growers after last season's harvest, the Government has not lifted the national cap on the number of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers from Pacific Island nations.

At Enza Orchards in Riwaka, one of the region's largest, picking of royal gala began last Monday. Operations manager Steve Moriarty said that was a week earlier that last year and that although it was early days, the packhouse was packing 90 per cent of fruit picked, a good proportion.

Jazz apples, which account for 65 per cent of the 220ha orchard, will start to be picked next week. The orchard has 140 Tongan RSE workers, the same number as last year, with 60 already working and 80 to arrive late next week.

Last year some Nelson growers struggled to get enough workers to pick crops at peak times, with some saying it affected the prices they got for their fruit. That shortage does not tend to become apparent until April, when several later-maturing varieties are harvested and when cooler weather means fewer backpackers are available to pick.

Paul Heywood, the chairman of the Nelson Seasonal Employers Association, said he believed the region had enough workers to avoid such problems this year. "The season started early and we have a clean, good-sized crop so that means we'll have an earlier introduction to the peak period of April. But it depends on the number of rain days. Last year we had a lot of rain days and a very large crop."

He also said that although the RSE cap had not been lifted, there were more Pacific Island workers being brought into the region under "joint allocation" arrangements where workers on vineyards in Marlborough were being brought into Nelson for pipfruit work.

He said the Nelson region needed 5000 people to harvest and pack the pipfruit crop.

The national cap on RSE workers is 8000, of whom 900 were employed in Nelson last year.

Riwaka orchardist Bill Thomas said he had seen a lot of Asians on working holidays looking for work and that the labour situation for his orchards and packhouse was "comfortable" for the start of the season. It would get tighter in April and "we're normally scratching for workers from May onwards".

He said fruit quality was looking good, with size up on last year although it was too early to tell what the overall volume would be. Mr Moriarty agreed, saying the fruit had good colour, much less russet than last year, and that "bitter pill", a disorder that affects jazz and envy varieties, was not looking to be the problem it was last year.

The Nelson Mail