Worker shortages could raise New Zealand food prices

An imminent labour shortage on the back of covid-19 worker limitations could see New Zealand crops of strawberries and asparagus left unpicked this season. This would mean higher prices come summer.

Strawberry Growers New Zealand said its members will be hit both by the absence of backpackers and workers registered under the recognised seasonal employer scheme, resulting in fruit being unpicked and "rotting in the ground."

Chair Tony Rakich told the primary production select committee on Thursday the industry could expect 15 per cent less fruit. "Reduced planting was probably not an option for the majority of growers, as by the time the covid response was underway, fertiliser and plants had already been ordered." In many instances those decisions were made during the prior season, he said.

Rakich said labour supply was also "easily now the biggest issue" for strawberry growers, particularly given the fruit's highly seasonal nature, with planting from April to July and harvest and packing taking place between September to March – but with a peak of September to Christmas time.

With 160 growers, the NZ strawberry industry is small by global standards, but it employs more than 2,400 seasonal workers, who tend between 13 million and 15 million plants, the vast majority of which are in the Auckland area.

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