Viticulture desperate for workers

Viticultura viticulturist and operations manager Timbo Deaker with a team of Ni-Vanuatu workers....
Viticultura viticulturist and operations manager Timbo Deaker with a team of Ni-Vanuatu workers. PHOTO: JARED MORGAN
It is easy to get abstract and cerebral about wine but beyond the romanticism is the grunt. Central Otago vineyards rely heavily on two labour forces and the Covid-19 pandemic has put paid to both. Central Otago bureau chief Jared Morgan reports.

Hot,  hard and fast.

Those three words sum up predictions for this season’s grape harvest.

Time is of the essence; speed and efficiency are key.

The next few months depend on weather conditions, the cadence of the growing season and labour.

Central Otago’s viticulture sector says the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme is the most effective form of New Zealand foreign aid to Pacific nations whose stock-in-trade — tourism — has been decimated by Covid-19 despite being Covid-free.

As in horticulture, RSE workers and backpackers are the backbone of the viticulture workforce.

For now, there is little or no access to either.

Workers across the region’s sprawling vineyards form a mix: some employers choose RSE workers, some backpackers, some both.

They all agree the lack of those workers will create pressure felt by all.

Near Alexandra, Mount Dunstan Estates vineyard manager Christine Rasmussen oversees more than 280km of vines over 62ha.

Mrs Rasmussen manages 42ha for shareholders and 19.6ha under contract management, growing grapes to supply to some of the largest winemakers in New Zealand.

Typically, 20-25 backpackers complemented the seven full-time staff including herself, she said.

Finding staff had been hit and miss.

"I started advertising in late September and had 22 to start on Tuesday [today]."

Only eight were available when she followed up, she said.

"The Government is saying we need to use the labour force available."

Her question was "from where?"

Alexandra had 5000 people, low unemployment and few young people.

"While economies of scale means we have more equipment than most, key jobs in the vineyard still require substantial labour content.

"Not having these jobs done in a timely manner, or done at all, will have a major flow-on effect, potentially risking harvest."

The lack of RSE workers would send ripples through the whole industry and into the Pacific, she said.

"It’s not just affecting us, it’s affecting them as well."

In Cromwell, that is a point that has Timbo Deaker scratching his head.

He is co-owner of Viticultura with Jason Thomson. Both men are viticulturists with more than 30 years’ experience in the industry.

Together they run a viticulture contracting company that has served the sector for 16 years and have 20 to 30 clients in Central Otago, into Queenstown Lakes District and Waitaki, providing labour and general management.

The operations manager said the difference between good viticulture and bad viticulture was time.

That meant labour and he and Mr Thomson foresaw the problem.

"We saw this coming about six months ago."

It also meant telling clients their vines this season might not be as well tended as they should be.

"I think a lot of vineyards will look a bit hairy."

Mr Deaker said the pressure on labour even pre-pandemic had led to a shift in approach.

"Our effort over the past 18 months has been to reduce labour with a focus on mechanisation."

Lockdown had been an opportunity to "force innovation", he said.

That did not completely replace a hands-on approach and as a champion of the RSE scheme, Viticultura had issues with the decision to not allow RSE workers back into New Zealand.

"It’s the best form of aid New Zealand can provide to the Pacific — it’s actually a moral obligation.

"They [RSE workers] know our vineyards better than we do."

Domaine-Thomson viticulturist Simon Gourley knows labour issues well, overseeing recruitment on the company’s vineyard at Pisa.

It is a family-owned organic wine producer which alongside its vineyards in Central Otago also operates from Burgundy, France.

In that family-owned spirit, Mr Gourley’s approach to staffing follows the same lines — to create an environment to keep people coming back.

"We used to use a lot of backpackers but in the past couple of seasons we have had more students from university.

"That sort of snowballed and we have a pretty solid group of students."

He had used RSE workers in the past and said they were an "extremely valuable resource" to the industry.

"One RSE worker is worth at least two backpackers.

"They work at least 50 to 60 hours per week and if this [Covid-19] hadn’t happened, we would have looked at getting RSE workers."

The viticulture industry competed with horticulture, particularly cherries, because workers could earn more, meaning even pre-pandemic there was pressure on the labour market.

Picking time at the vineyard coincided with Level 4 lockdown and Mr Gourley saw the impact.

"The French were called home. The embassy said to ‘get out’, they left their cars — everything."

At the Sir Clifford Skeggs-owned Akarua "home block" in Bannockburn viticulturist Mark Naismith oversees operations and those at five other sites across the Cromwell Basin.

He said the industry had concerns and was aware it had "many thousands of positions to fill".

Competing crops such as cherries posed a challenge.

Like Mr Gourley, he said this season was about creating a "good culture". The value of word of mouth and the power of social media should not be underestimated in attracting and retaining workers.

An ability to offer accommodation was an area where "orchardists are ahead of the wine industry" but Akarua was addressing that and had resource consent to build workers’ accommodation.

That was too late for this season, he said.

Akarua had a crew of 16 RSE workers but they returned home for "their wellbeing and family reasons".

Filling the void left by the men because of their inability to return was the issue.

Employment relationships were formed and New Zealand had "made a commitment to these men".

"The employers of these men would cover the cost to get them back."

The question of greater mechanisation would only go so far as Central Otago’s terrain precluded taking that approach fully.

Arguments about pay were also difficult, because the wine industry operated on narrow margins, Mr Naismith said.

His approach at this stage was to be optimistic a solution would be found.

Misha’ Vineyard director Andy Wilkinson with wife Misha owns 57ha at Bendigo, 26ha of which is planted and produces premium wines targeting the hotel, restaurant and resort market across 14 countries predominantly in the Asia-Pacific region.

The viticulture labour force in Central Otago came from two streams, backpackers on working holiday visas and the RSE workers, he said.

Work started now and ran until May and with no RSE workers returning, the viticulture sector was competing for a vastly reduced pool of backpackers — from 70,000 to about 11,000 still in the country.

"For the first time ever we are in a position where we are going to be competing for labour."

The Government position that there would be a large number of New Zealanders able to fill the gaps had not been matched by reality, Mr Wilkinson said.

"Our experience has been that in employing Kiwis we got a higher turnover of people.

"Kiwis last a very short period of time ... people have appeared for work and then disappeared."

Any potential New Zealand based workforce was also limited by mobility, he said.

That was something he thought the Government failed to grasp.

"I don’t believe they understand."

Hot, hard and fast may be the prediction for this year’s wine season but for producers the emphasis will be on the word "hard".

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