New Zealand: Going hard and early pays off for Canterbury farmer

In mid-March, while the rest of New Zealand inched closer to coronavirus lockdown by the day, Robin Oakley took action. Oakley's Premium Fresh Vegetables grows potatoes, broccoli, pumpkin and beetroot at sites across Canterbury, although its main base is at Southbridge, south of Christchurch.

With 350 hectares in vegetables and another 100 in arable crops, Oakley's is among the largest fresh vegetable producers in the area and employs about 50 people. The scale of the operation meant if Covid-19 got into the workforce, crop losses could be huge, he said.

Smaller growers in the North Island are likely to have been hit harder by lockdown, Robin Oakley says. "I couldn't risk it getting into my staff. My big concern was the pumpkin harvest – if I hadn't been able to get that done, it would have been a big crop loss. I didn't want to have any regrets."

As well as splitting his workers into bubbles, Oakley ordered 500 masks and put hand sanitiser at every work station and in the company's vehicles.

Other than "a few eye-rolls," the changes were well-received and, within five or six days, everyone was on board, Oakley said. But in spite of the extra precautions, the business has still had a couple of scares.

"We had a couple of situations with people in our workers' bubbles, so we stood those people down for two weeks, even though they were very low risk," Oakley said. "Another worker had someone in their home bubble getting tested and we stood that whole group down as a precaution. Luckily, none of those scares came to anything and we could get on with the job."

Oakley said growers in the North Island, where smaller, independent operations are common, are likely to have been hit harder than those in the South Island. quoted him as saying; "Those businesses generally supply to smaller sellers and the hospitality industry and those markets have completely fallen over. There will be people who have lost a lot of crops and a lot of money."

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