Kiwifruit growers appeal to Aussie pickers

Ben McKayAAP
Kiwifruit growers in New Zealand are hoping for a record haul but will need extra help.
Camera IconKiwifruit growers in New Zealand are hoping for a record haul but will need extra help. Credit: AAP

New Zealanders abroad are being urged to come home and do their patriotic duty - picking and packing kiwifruit - in the national interest.

And, if they’re quick, they can help out sending New Zealand’s first red kiwifruit abroad.

New Zealand’s annual harvest began in Te Puke this week, a Bay of Plenty town known as the kiwifruit capital for its hillside orchards teeming with fruit.

The harvest will take roughly four months and kiwifruit marketers Zespri are hopeful of a record haul.

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Last year, 177 million kiwifruit trays - or 5.3 billion pieces of fruit - were taken from trees, and this year, the forecast is for 190 million trays.

That’s if they can find enough staff.

The workforce is usually comprised of around 60 per cent locals, 20 per cent Pacific workers, and 20 per cent backpackers, but with border settings still tightly-controlled, that backpacking crowd isn’t available.

New Zealand’s tight labour market exacerbates the problem; unemployment is a staggering 3.2 per cent, meaning there are fewer Kiwis looking for work than usual.

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Colin Bond says they’re appealing to Kiwis - whether at home or abroad - to make up the shortfall.

“We could be around 6000 short because that’s about the number of backpackers that we normally have,” Mr Bond told AAP.

“Our challenge is how do we cover that gap? So we’re going to try and attract more New Zealanders.”

Last month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a reopening strategy that begins with Kiwis based in Australia, who can enter from next week without quarantining.

From March 14, that will extend to working holiday makers, leaving a tight turnaround before the picking peak in mid-April.

Given that, growers are hopeful Kiwis in Australia might jump the ditch and roll their sleeves up.

“We’re a billion (dollar) industry for New Zealand and that money flows back to local communities,” Mr Bond said.

“It is about people pitching in and coming to do your bit, to pick a bit of ‘kiwiana’ and come and help out the growers.”

Kiwifruit is big business in New Zealand.

It is the largest horticultural export, outdoing even wine, and is expected to be worth up to $NZ3 billion ($A2.8 billion) this year.

This year, pickers will get their hands on a new variety: Zespri’s RubyRed flavour.

The new fruit has been engineered over the past decade to ensure it’s the right colour, taste, is easily stored and grown for commercialisation.

“It’s a beautiful-tasting fruit,” Mr Bond said.

“When you slice them open you’ll get red flesh and they’re slightly different on the outside as well.

“The green has the hairy fuzz. The gold has a smooth skin. The ruby red is a slightly different shape and colour again.”

Zespri claims the RubyRed has an edible skin, and the fruit is “high in antioxidants, rich in Vitamin C and it’s a good source of folate, potassium, and Vitamin E”.

Just a few hundred thousand trays are being exported this season, making it a tiny slice of the overall market.

Sadly for Australian consumers, they’re bound for Singapore, Japan and China - with Australia part of plans further down the track.

That means the best route for Australians to try the fruit is to head to New Zealand and pick them.

Mr Bond said the vast majority of packhouses pay the living wage - $NZ22.75 ($A21.25) an hour - or above, while pickers can attract an average of $NZ27.

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