Tougher Covid-19 restrictions would have a massive impact on the billion-dollar industry, but growers remain cautiously optimistic they can beat the clock, writes Jim Kayes.

Craig Lemon sits in a room usually teeming with people, surrounded by bottles of hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes.

With 260 hectares of kiwifruit orchards producing about 48 million of the green and yellow pockets of juicy vitamin C, his mind should be solely on the harvest. This is the time when the fruit is picked and packed, with Lemon’s Southern Orchards filling 1.5 million trays at his packhouses in South Auckland and Tauranga over the next few months.

Today, though, Lemon is worrying about the spacing between his staff and how that will slow the speed the fruit is packed. “We are having to rethink how we set up for distancing and how it could see the processing speed drop by up to 50 per cent. It’s still a bit fluid at the moment.”

A 30-year veteran of kiwifruit industry, whose company Jace Group has been around for 18 years, Lemon has orchards stretching from South Auckland to Waihi and Te Puke, and in Te Teko. It’s a big operation that employs about 1100 people across his three pack houses, and nearly 300 staff working at the orchards – part of an industry that injects $1.45 billion annually into the Bay of Plenty region.

Adding spacing to fit still evolving COVID-19 protocols means fewer staff can be squeezed into a packhouse – and that means slower processing of the fruit. That’s especially true if the fruit is destined for the 3.5kg single trays used for export, which is why Lemon wants Zespri to allow packhouses to only focus on filling the 10kg bulk packs.

Fortunately, Zespri seems to be on board. They’ve told packaging manufacturers to concentrate on bulk boxes if that is what customers need, and have pledged to remain flexible to market demand.

“Our focus remains on picking and packing fruit without compromising the safety of those involved and maintaining best fruit quality,” Zespri’s chief global supply officer Blair Hamill told Newsroom. “Zespri will continue to work with the industry and our partners to manage capacity constraints in the supply chain and to ensure the industry remains safe.”

One bright spot has been labour supply. Workers have come from other sectors such as forestry, tourism and hospitality, shut down because of Covid-19. This will make up for the huge shortage (up to 20,000 at one stage) created when the usual supply of backpackers and seasonal workers from Vanuatu, Fiji and Samoa (brought in on the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme) dried up thanks to the coronavirus restrictions.

But time is still of the essence if picking is to beat any further emergency provisions being imposed, says Nikki Johnson, CEO of New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated.

“To be deemed an essential business is not something that we take lightly. Everyone in the industry has a very important responsibility to hold these [Covid-19] protocols to the highest level to ensure that our status is not revoked.

With just 15 million of this season’s projected 155 million trays picked, there is risk and reward in equal measure. “We are encouraging growers to get fruit that is cleared to be harvested as soon as possible,” says Johnson. “This will reduce the pressure on labour as we move to the peak of harvest, and volumes of picked fruit increase.”

In a sense, the industry is trying to flatten the picking and packing curve in much the same way health officials want to flatten the Covid-19 infection rate curve – to avoid overloading the system.

The prospect of stricter controls – as yet not being openly contemplated – shutting the industry down is not only a huge concern for growers, but for the communities who depend on the industry for their livelihoods, and for the national economy.

Kiwifruit is New Zealand’s largest fresh horticultural export, with over $2.1 billion in sales in 2018 – half of the value of all of New Zealand’s horticultural exports. Last year, 2800 growers sold 149 million trays of kiwifruit to 50 international markets. This season was tipped to be even bigger.

Lemon says common sense must prevail in an already rule-bound industry. It’s why he so desperately wants the single trays replaced by bulk packs that can be repacked later for the export market.

Pointing out that Zespri was formed as a growers’ co-operative in 1997 to market kiwifruit on behalf of its members (now numbering around 2500), he says “this will test how co-operative we are as an industry. It’s time to go back to our roots. If the industry works together we should be able to get through the next four weeks.

“It will be slower, but if the weather plays its part and we can keep harvesting and things improve, then we are still in a good position. If that doesn’t happen, well, that’s just life isn’t it.”

The potential silver lining for the kiwifruit industry is that the green and gold ovals will be increasingly sought after as people look for healthy food to eat. There was a significant sales spike when SARS hit in 2003 and the hope is that the same could happen when the current crisis passes.

The first charter vessels have left New Zealand full of kiwifruit destined for Japan, Europe and – perhaps ironically, given where the new coronavirus and the fruit itself originated – China.

Lemon is both optimistic and pragmatic. “Even if the Zespri payment is the same as last year, the costs will be up.” But, he says, casting an eye around a room empty of people but full of cleaning products, “any payout is a lot better than the alternative.”

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