Uncertainty over travel for the international workforce is compounding what has been a difficult season for orchardists in Central Otago. Border restrictions and reduced airline capacity in response to Covid-19 are creating anxiety in the industry.
Summerfruit New Zealand chairman and chief executive of 45 South -New Zealand's largest cherry exporter- Tim Jones said traditionally two-thirds of his workforce came from overseas, half on Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) visas and half backpackers.
"As a grower, I sit here nervous about labour and we know we use as many Kiwis as we can but to supplement that we employ RSE labour and we employ a lot of backpackers and our obvious concerns are they may not be around in the sort of numbers we've had recently. And then we've got further concerns that with the effect on the airline industry and planes not flying that our transport links into Asia for export will be severely compromised."
While the majority of this season's crop was exported before widespread outbreak of the disease, export volume was well down due to a difficult growing season. However, the timing of the outbreak saved further pain for the industry.
"I think we were particularly lucky with when it started to hit in that the bulk of the cherry crop had already been picked and sent to market. There was a little bit of fruit that was picked post-Chinese New Year, so late January, that didn't go to China when we would've expected it to. But it was diverted to other markets successfully.”
"Timing is everything. Cherries are the big crop as far as export into Asia goes. Apricots go into other markets - Australia, USA and the Middle East, et cetera - and they weren't really affected. We got away with it with the skin of our teeth from a cherry point of view."