Productivity problems plague pruners

Wine Marlborough chief executive Marcus Pickens. Photo: Supplied.

Grape growers’ dependence on overseas workers to prune more than 27,000 hectares of grape vines has been jeopardised by the coronavirus pandemic.

The massive job needs about 2800 Pacific Island workers, brought in under the government’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.

But wine bosses are optimistic there are enough RSE workers already in the country to complete the vital horticulture work.

A call has also gone out to Kiwis looking for work.

Wine Marlborough chief executive Marcus Pickens says experienced pruners are not allowed in the country under lockdown laws.

Despite a shortage of experienced workers in the country, pruning will still go-ahead, using summer staff already here.

“There will be a productivity difference,” he says.

“There will be an experience gap.”

Marcus says the usual winter work force will, at this stage, remain in their home country as tight border restrictions prevents movement between countries.

However, the summer workforce is still here.

“We’re giving them the opportunity for more work.”

Pruning 27,000 hectares of grape vines usually takes about four months, Marcus says.

“We were forecasting a large deficit [of workers], but now we’re a lot more optimistic.

“RSE workers are still going to be the core of the workforce.

But they won’t be coming in from overseas.

He says the new workers will require a large degree of training required to get them up to speed.

“We’ve had a steady amount of wins along the way,” Marcus says.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment recently extended some RSE workers visas until the end of September.

“The ability for people to stay on and work has been clarified,” Marcus says.

“We weren’t certain people could move between regions.”

“Hawkes Bay may have a group of people picking apples – some of the workers will move to Marlborough.

“We’ve had confirmation that that can still happen.

“We have safe, low-risk travel plans approved by MBIE.”

The Bragato Research Institute recently released information on pruning options during a potential labour shortage which includes a one-season pruning alternative and a fact sheet on “mothballing” vineyards.

Marcus says it will be a business-by-business choice.

“It’s a rather severe measure and I don’t think it will be widely adopted,” he says.

Alternatives to pruning could include realigning vineyards, widening rows or replanting.

“There are a number of things people could do,” Marcus says.

“Individual businesses will have to make those decisions.”

He says another question is what will happen when border restrictions are eased.

“When people can go home, will they?

“Will people be able to come?”

He says RSE workers will remain the “core” of the vineyard workforce, but there is plenty of work for Kiwis, too.

“We’re continually calling out for Kiwis to join in the industry,” he says.

“We need to show there are a lot of careers in the wine industry.”

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