Labor Costs a Concern for Tree Fruit Growers in New Zealand

Labor Costs a Concern for Tree Fruit Growers in New Zealand

The future of farming seemed to be a consistent theme among the second day of the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) New Zealand tour. This was the first day of orchard tours in the Nelson, NZ, area. Advancements made on in the orchard are all in the name of cutting labor costs.

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It’s estimated that by 2020, the minimum wage will rise from $15.75 to $20.50 here. Most New Zealand growers using seasonal labor pay about 15% to 18% more.

While at Birdhurst Orchard in Motueka, NZ — which is a part of Golden Bay Fruit — both co-owner Evan Heywood and Orchard Manager Aaron Cederman talked about the move to more labor-efficient production. This includes an over-the row Munckhof sprayer.

Cederman says their orchard has four multi-row sprayers, and another one ordered. He says this allows them to react much faster and cover more ground easily, especially when the timing of sprays is critical. Each sprayer can cover about 1.6 acres an hour, and when the whole fleet is deployed, the team can cover the whole 500-acre 1,200- trees -per per-acre orchard in five hours.

“It’s just about getting across the farms quickly,” he says. “We honestly wouldn’t be doing it with the single-row sprayer.”

It’s also critical that the canopy is simple so coverage can be uniform.

“You get a system and you don’t deviate,” Cederman says, adding that finding the right operators for the sprayers also is critical. “You don’t want someone who doesn’t listen and who likes to rush,” he says.

At Palmer Orchards in Lower Moutere, NZ, growers were treated to a demo from Intelligent Fruit Vision (IFV). IFV’s tractor- or ATV-mounted system captures the number of apples in a block, and can cover two acres an hour. The data is GPS mapped.

The motivation for IFV’s system is for a more accurate crop assessment.

“With the use of our technology, you are able to pick up on change in growth curves and understand where your crop will be,” says Laurence Dingle, lead inventor of the system. “It’s about developing he data and understanding what to do with it.”

IFV’s FruitVision system consists of two 5 5-megapixel cameras working in stereo to measure the distance of every apple to prevent double counting. The software takes the mean of the top 2/3 of the tree and bottom 2/3 of the tree to provide an estimated number of apples on the tree.

Using IFV’s Mark 3 system, the device detected about 151 apples in a very brief demo, running three minutes at Palmer Orchards.

Dingle says IFTA President Rod Farrow is the first U.S. grower to purchase a device, which runs about $40,000 with $6,000 yearly fees.

Fine-Tuning Nutrition
With a stop at Fairfield Orchards, co-owner Aaron Drummond and Dean Rainham of AgFirst Consultants NZ Ltd. told growers learned about a strategic nutrition program the farm in Riwaka, NZ, employs with the help of AgFirst.

Rainham said as he and Drummond were looking at fruit growth on his ‘Jazz’ block on M.9 Pajam 2 (also called Cepiland in New Zealand) everything seemed to be going just fine until around Christmas and then the crop wouldn’t finish. So, they deployed a total nutrition package first to maintain the same yield in four years of fruiting.

“Unless you get the basics right, they all end up being distractions.”

Rainham said after examining the soil, there was a severe lack of magnesium, calcium, and potassium. Leaf sampling showed that potassium was most limiting on the orchard and that there was nutrition variability among trees. Coupled with imbalanced vigor, the nutrition deficiencies just seemed to exacerbate the problems.

“They were running out of gas,” he said.

Rainham worked with Drummond to increase irrigation and applied calcium through fertigation to improve overall health, as he says calcium moves more easily through water. AgFirst also monitors weekly fruit size growth. The goal is to get a millimeter of growth a week. Specific fruits in ten trees are measured three times a season and then the fruits of another 100 trees are randomly measured just to make sure the fruit is progressing well and cues the team in if fruit isn’t growing.

“Particularly in the new year, we still wanted fruit to punch forward,” Rainham said.

Soil moisture is also monitored weekly to help better manage water and nutrition. Irrigation can be done three times a week to weekly as needed.

“Get the foundation right and you get the orchard off to a good start,” Rainham says.

As Drummond and Rainham worked on this nutrition plan, bitter pit and sooty botch were lowered. But, what was most remarkable is how the fruit size improved.

“The biggest movement is fruit size,” Rainham says. “Returns have doubled and profits have increased 15-fold.”

As for this year Rainham and Drummond on have a wager on Drummond hitting a specific packout. Will they make 110-size packout? Rainham sure hopes so.

“I’ve got a bottle of wine on that so we’ve got to get to 110,” he says.

Field Notes, Vol. 2
LABOR SOURCE – With a country of 4.5 million people and an apple industry that produces 386,000 U.S. tons of apples, most New Zealand growers use the RSE scheme, which is similar to H-2A. RSE stands for “recognized seasonal employer.” Andy McGrath of M A Orchards estimates approximately 10,500 people are involved in the program to bring Pacific Islanders into the country. He said the culture and language of each Pacific Island is different, and growers must understand that.

As part of the program, employers pay for one part of the employee’s ticket and health insurance, and employees pay taxes. McGrath says the employer is responsible for the employees’ ride home and would have to pay up to $5,000 if the employee goes rogue. This incentivizes the employers to make sure workers get on the plane and return home following the season.

Those enrolled in the RSE scheme must have a clean sheet in terms of labor practices, etc. Imported labor must be paid minimum wage plus, which ranges from about 15% to 18% higher.

“That’s why you don’t see a lot of berries,” McGrath says.

HEEEEEERE’S GITA – Cyclone Gita has made her presence known in many ways in New Zealand, most notably by threatening to flood out IFTA’s tours on Tuesday.

While visiting the Drummond family’s Fairfield Orchard in the Riwaka Valley on Monday, Cherie Drummond said the cyclone has impacted them as their labor source from Tonga was to board a plane the day we visited. They did not. She said they were to get 50% of their labor this week. She repurchased plane tickets, but the storm closed government offices. And if they don’t get the visa soon, they won’t arrive until Feb. 28. Workers were expected to start picking ‘Jazz’ on Feb. 22.

For those of you who are interested in learning what the difference is between a hurricane, cyclone, and a typhoon … the answer is they’re all the same. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the difference is in where the storm occurs. For instance, in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, it’s a typhoon; in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, it’s a tropical cyclone; and in the North Atlantic, central North Pacific, and eastern North Pacific it’s a hurricane.