Horticulture’s contribution to Covid recovery

16 Jul 2020 Horticulture’s contribution to Covid recovery image

Our industry’s contribution to the Covid recovery would seem as simple of providing fresh healthy grown local vegetables and fruit.  But since we emerged from lockdown, this has become much more difficult and can no longer be assured. Recent price increases for vegetables are a very graphic reminder that things are not what they were. 

During the Covid lockdown, a third of all outlets for fruit and vegetables were closed: restaurants, independent fruit and vegetable retailers, and farmers markets.  The growers who supplied these outlets either had nowhere to sell or could not sell all their crops.  Their response was to cut back on planting because, why would you grow what you couldn’t sell?  Plus in winter, growing is much slower and so filling shortages is not quick.

There is also the issue of labour supply: both permanent and seasonal workers.  After Covid struck, around 2,000 New Zealanders were redeployed into horticulture to help with harvest.  But going forward, there is no certainty that there will be sufficient workers.  The horticulture industry relies on Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) seasonal workers from the Pacific as well as New Zealand seasonal workers for harvest and pruning.  These workers used to be topped up by back packers on working holidays.  We know that back packers will not be available in the coming season.  We are also not certain that there will be enough RSE workers remaining in New Zealand or able to get to and from New Zealand.  This creates uncertainty.  If you are not sure you can harvest your crops, you will not plant them.  We do have programmes running to attract and redeploy New Zealanders but, will enough New Zealanders make the change in occupation?

Uncertainty about where you are going to sell your produce, and where you are going to get your labour from results in fewer crops being planted. That in turns results in fewer vegetables being available and at higher prices.  The only way to break this cycle is to create certainty.  Consumers need to buy more healthy fresh food and our labour programmes need to deliver a stable workforce.  With certainty will come planting, sufficient supply and reasonable prices.

To address these concerns the horticulture industry has collectively developed a Covid recovery strategy – go here for more information.  Its goal is to work collectively in partnership with the Government to provide the certainty that growers need to keep planting and keep expanding horticulture, to help New Zealand recover from Covid.  This strategy will have to be an industry led, government enabled partnership if it is to succeed.

The eleven workstreams are:

Labour with a dual focus on seasonal and permanent labour, career development and attraction of New Zealanders to our industry, linking with our Career Progression Manager network

Production systems covering economically and environmentally sustainable production, tools for growers, and Farm Environment Plans

Data to support/validate industry claims; and the plant food story including the role of healthy food, post-Covid

Access to natural resources

Trade focusing on the most valuable Free Trade Agreements and removing market access barriers

Government support including removing unnecessary regulatory and policy barriers and also removing bottlenecks to access modern/alternative crop protection tools, funding and investment, and better government/industry coordination

Partnership with Maori/Pasifika

Data and information including economic modelling, apps and technology platforms, and leveraging knowledge and information

R&D/innovation aligning with research entities, opportunities through technology, fitting with the Hort Automation and Agri-Tech Transformation Plans, and protecting IP

Diversity covering small vs large holdings, lifestyle vs business, culture and background, women in horticulture, and succession planning.    

We have collectively set ourselves the challenge to make a real contribution to New Zealand’s Covid recovery and have put in place a plan to ensure our success. 

Mike Chapman, Chief Executive