The Italian experience with the Covid-19 pandemic is providing some valuable lessons for kiwifruit processors in the Bay of Plenty as they grapple with harvesting a record crop under strict bio-security protocols.
Kiwifruit orchardists and packhouses had already been scrambling to reorganise staffing rosters in March after the shock impact of border closures resulted in the Bay losing over half the overseas staff it expected for this year’s bumper kiwifruit harvest.
The announcement that no foreigners would be allowed into New Zealand meant 1300 Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) staff were locked out until the ban has been lifted.
Apata chief executive Stu Weston said he and his colleagues have had several conference calls with their peers in Northern Italy about the best ways to re-configure packhouses, maintaining a safe distance between staff while also continuing to process and pack fruit effectively.
Italian fruit processors are at a low ebb for kiwifruit now, but often also process other fruit in the same facilities and have managed to continue to do so with Covid-19, which has hit Italy especially hard.
“We have also had a lot of assistance from Zespri who have us bulk packing first, which is less labour intensive compared to the layered packing process,” said Weston.
“We have erected barriers around packhouses to separate people. The key challenge is really around smoko rooms where people congregate and with high touch surfaces.”
The kiwifruit sector has been classed as an “essential” business and with that all contractors and post-harvest operators have to register with Ministry for Primary Industries.
That includes producing a full risk management outline on how they intend to manage staff from getting infected, and reporting infections.
“But apart from operations, it is about managing staff head space in this situation and keeping them safe,” aid Weston.
“There is cash to be earned here and jobs to be had for months to come. Those that want to stay home and watch NetFlix will. We have not seen that yet, but we are cognisant of that risk.”
NZ Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson acknowledged there had been feedback about potential staff questioning their safety on the job, should they choose to work.
“We have found growers have been very understanding, but we expect we may even see a smoother harvest curve this year as they accommodate our needs.” – Nikki Johnson
One possibility mooted was allowing new staff in this and other essential businesses to be granted any government payment for loss of their earlier job, and keep the amount earnt conducting the essential role.
A short pause was called to harvest after the PM announced the lockdown intention, but it was due to ramp up although not at the same pace as pre-Covid-19.
“It is still very early in the harvest season.
“We have found growers have been very understanding, but we expect we may even see a smoother harvest curve this year as they accommodate our needs.
“We may see a more even five week peak, rather than that three week peak.”
Meantime market prospects are still highly positive for New Zealand kiwifruit.