Orchards overrun with job hunters

One Central Otago orchard has a list of more than 7000 job-seekers as locals and returning international backpackers hunt the same jobs.

Thousands of people are seeking work in Central Otago orchards as the days of Covid-19 forcing a hunt for workers now appear a distant memory.

45 South chief executive Tim Jones. PHOTO: ODT FILES
45 South chief executive Tim Jones. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Cromwell orchard 45 South has a waiting list of over 7000 people, and about 600 people are already employed there.

Chief executive Tim Jones said the border closures had prompted the orchard to re-evaluate the labour it used.

"It forced us to have a conversation with different cohorts of people to try and get enough seasonal staff — which has actually been a good thing in hindsight.

"We’ve still managed to keep that cohort of New Zealand students," Mr Jones said.

This season there were huge numbers of backpackers in the district with jobs, or looking for jobs, he said.

"We’ve probably had more [applications] than ever ... even pre-Covid. We have in excess of 7000 people on a waiting list."

High demand for jobs allowed the orchard to be more selective about workers, he said.

"Over Covid, it was the next person to knock on the front door got the job.

"Now, of course, you’re able to pick and choose a bit and find people that may have some experience."

45 South had a philosophy of employing locals if they could, Mr Jones said.

"Because if we have a 15-year-old kid in Cromwell, who then goes to university, then we may get staff for five or six seasons with those people coming back."

Clyde Orchards manager Kris Robb said this season promised a return to "business as usual" for the orchard.

He said border closures had created a large hole in their workforce and they also drove a local recruitment campaign, looking to take on more local workers.

"[It] opened our eyes to the ability to be able to recruit from the local area.

"This year ... we’re probably back to business as usual with the number of people around."

Clyde Orchards employed about 150 workers of 18 different nationalities this season.

"There’s a fair old mix going on here at the moment — it’s really cool," Mr Robb said.

A reliable workforce was crucial to the orchard’s success and "to be able to have labour at a ready supply is great."

He said having workers from all walks of life added to the culture of the orchard.

"They all bring with them stories and personalities and fun and experiences. It’s part of the orchard life."

Dawson Cherries orchardist Gill Taylor-Julien, based near Alexandra, said the stonefruit industry had changed vastly since the pandemic.

"It’s a very different market," Ms Taylor-Julien said.

She believed that social media played a role in drawing people to work in particular areas of Otago, resulting in large groups of workers with a limited number of jobs.

Accommodation was a consistent issue for international workers, but not so for locals, she said.

"For the kid who comes and stays with Grandma, it’s not a problem."

ruby.shaw@odt.co.nz , Cadet reporter