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Skilled workforce needs to grow

If the NZ horticulture industry is to reach its aspirational goal of doubling farmgate revenue, it is going to need a skilled workforce to do the job, which is already in short supply.

Rob Holtham is orchard manager at Willisbrook Orchards on Tasman's Waimea Plains and says finding skilled staff or potential employees who want to learn skills is challenging at orchard level. He says there is a wall of expectation around the industry to reach its goal and more capital from outside the industry will increase the crop, along with technology to improve crops. That means more skilled labour, and he worries the industry is about to spread those skills more thinly.

"There's an appetite to invest more capital into horticulture, and what does that do to the labour pool? It just dilutes it. Because where does the skilled labour come from?"

It is not the seasonal workforce he is talking about, but the permanent employees in horticulture who need the skills to spray the crop effectively, manage growth, take charge of quality control at harvest and manage people.

At Willisbrook Orchards, which grows apples and kiwifruit, he has a team of 15 permanent staff and up to 60 during the apple and kiwifruit harvest. He is always looking for opportunities for staff to upskill and find the right people with the willingness and flair to go further.

"The ones that can do quality control and supervision are gold. But there's not enough of those to go around. There's always the opportunities for people, but are they the right people?"

Now, the orchard has split quality control from a supervisor's role, which adds another role into the cost structure, but creates two different roles to suit different people. It means a supervisor now oversees a gang of about 16 workers instead of 12 in the past but concentrates on people. Whereas the quality control role is purely focused on the fruit.

"As long as the QC and supervisor work together, it works well. In some ways it improved the performance."

While technology will contribute to crop management and harvest, Rob says skilled staff with knowledge on the ground will be needed to interpret what is going on in the orchard or garden on a daily basis to use that technology best.

"It's not about what is going right, it's about what is going wrong, and that comes back to skills and interpretation. Technology, AI and data all depend on who is driving it and there are also commercial interests that will influence it."

Rob says Covid-19 had an impact on available skills in the horticulture industry because there was increased pressure at the coal face, and he believes that drove some people away. Replacing them is harder, especially when many young people want to start higher up the chain rather than learning the crucial skills on the ground.

Though there are cadets and other training programmes, he says there are not enough people coming through for the numbers that will be needed to get a quality export crop in an expanding industry.

"There's an increasing need for quality and market access and all those expectations, and I don't think the skills are there, or the training beefy enough to meet those expectations."

To use spraying as an example, he says you need skilled staff to ensure a crop is not over-sprayed or under-sprayed to get it right for export market quality and trade barriers. The industry has to attract people, train them and retain them, which is already challenging. Yet more will be needed as the pressure increases in the industry. He suspects growers/companies will have to pay more to lure or retain skilled staff.

"As an industry, we need to work harder on the training and ask the question: Is the training suitable and how can we enhance training to get people more engaged with what they're doing."

He would like to see the industry organise more off-farm visits for trainees to other horticulture properties to see what others are doing and get them more engaged with the industry. It will require more investment within the industry to increase its skilled labour force to meet the challenge of not just growing the industry's revenue, but retaining what it has now, he says.

"As an industry, we have to keep on doing what we can to enhance the skill set of the labour."


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