The demand for fresh produce is on the rise, but the industry’s workforce is dwindling. It’s why, despite efforts to alleviate the pressure in recent years, the effects of labour shortages continue to be felt across every stage of the apple picking, packing, and shipping process around the globe.
The aftermath of the pandemic is bringing long-standing issues with worker supply and demand to the forefront. After almost three years of uncertainty, growers are trying to make up for lost time. But the reduced workforce makes it increasingly difficult - if not also dangerous - to maintain peak packhouse performance.
Despite the government’s recent increase in the limit of seasonal workers to 19,000, it’s still not enough to keep up with rising global demand for apples. Adding to grower stress, orchards and packhouses are now competing for the largest share of seasonal workers.
With apple harvest season set to kick off over the coming months, the age-old question remains: how can growers safely meet growing demand without adequate labour across their orchards or packhouses?
Pandemic aftermath intensifies labour shortages
Fresh produce growers were feeling the impact of rising demand long before the pandemic hit. That’s because seasonal worker shortages are nothing new. They’ve been threatening harvests for years. In New Zealand in 2018. In Australia in 2020. Europe in 2021. The list goes on, and on, and on.
In fact, New Zealand labelled labour shortages as ‘dire’ as recently as 2019, before we’d even heard the term COVID-19. At the time, apple demand was entering a rapid growth phase, and growers predicted they would need over 26,300 new workers over the next ten years to keep up.
While the pandemic certainly ratcheted up the pressure, it’s not solely to blame for the labour shortage. New Zealand has long neglected to bring in adequate Recognised Seasonal Employee (RSE) workers to tend to pruning, picking and packing.
RSEs are split across the agriculture, horticulture and viticulture industries, so there’s no guarantee that apple growers will secure the extra labour they need. This is forcing growers to lift wages to attract and retain as many RSEs as possible.
Apple industry trying to recover from huge losses
The 2021/2022 apple season was described as the worst since World War Two.
Without adequate labour, we’ll be looking at the same situation for 2022/2023.
Seasonal workers are an integral part of the apple harvest season, however the industry was among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with a 14% drop in export earnings. NZ Apples and Pears Inc (NSAPI) reported thousands of unpicked and spoiled fruit, equating to a $95-$100 million loss. Many growers believe the loss is significantly higher than reported.
The New Zealand apple industry provides some of the highest-quality produce for export. However, with no one to pick it or pack it, apples will be left to rot. Every unsold apple is a drop in profits, and growers are anticipating a huge amount of waste this season.
Unfortunately, outcomes like this aren’t just relegated to New Zealand. Similar struggles are being felt across Australia, the United States, and much of Europe. Uncertainty is compounding on top of yet more uncertainty, with long-term solutions proving hard to come by at what is a difficult time for everyone in the fresh produce industry.
Automation helps the industry adapt, survive, and thrive
Countless industries have been forced to adapt to the pandemic’s mitigation restrictions. The fresh produce industry is no different. Desperate to alleviate the impact of labour shortages, many producers are starting to embrace the benefits of automation.
The pandemic isn’t responsible for the industry’s reliance on RSE workers during harvest season, but it has highlighted just how much this remains a pressure point for many which, when pushed, can have serious flow-on effects well beyond the packhouse’s four walls. Band-aid fixes just aren’t as effective as they used to be.
Automation is a long-term investment in not only the wellbeing of workers, but also the longevity of producers. Taking the hard work out of labour-intensive, manual jobs such as fruit packing and carton filling, automated machinery takes the pressure off and frees up workers to be reallocated where they’re needed the most.
Aporo Apple Packer: alleviating the pressures of labour shortages
Things have changed a lot over the last few years. We’re willing to bet they’re only going to keep changing. Is it a safe bet? Probably. But there is a safer one: automation. While there’s still work to be done to overcome this industry’s ongoing issues, automation is an important step towards a safer, more efficient packhouse.
The Aporo Produce Packer provides reliable automated apple packing, taking care of the most labour-intensive processes in the packhouse. The machinery seamlessly integrates with existing processes and reduces the need for large numbers of workers.
Fewer workers required in the packhouse means less pressure on producers come harvest time, more workers available for other tasks, and more produce going out the (packhouse) door. At such an uncertain time in the industry, these kinds of reliable results are invaluable in every sense of the word.