It’s been a rough start to the year for Central Otago fruit orchards, as many have suffered at least 40 per cent damage to their cherry crop after the New Year’s heavy rainfall, with apricots and other stone fruits also affected.
After initial struggles to recruit seasonal pickers due to the Covid-10 border restrictions, some orchards were now being forced to let staff go - with 90 pickers at large Cromwell orchard CentralPac reportedly being informed it would be their last day over the weekend.
Central Orchard Management operations manager Tim Hope said that in his twelve years on the job, he could remember at least two other instances of damage as significant as this year. He predicted that all growers would be “significantly impacted” by the rainfall, but the extent of damage would vary across different fruit varieties, blocks and growing systems - and while some orchards would have to let staff go, others would need the manpower to go through their blocks, which could be slower work than usual as more quality control was needed.
Now two weeks into the picking season, the Upper Clutha Youth Workforce, coordinated by Kahu Youth Trust, The Upper Clutha GSD Collective and CentralPac, are being put to task, with a shortened picking window and extra pressure to fill their buckets.
Sarah Millwater, the driving force behind the project which aimed to provide many local youth with their first introduction to the working world, said it had been a real learning curve for organisers and participants alike.
“The picking itself is really hard,” she said. “There’s lots to think about and real skill involved. Cherries have to be perfect for the international market, so the size and colour of each cherry is really important, as well as filling the bucket up as fast as possible.”
Workforce supervisor Corben Turner, who had been out with groups of 16-18 and 19-24-year-olds at different orchards in the Upper Clutha each day, agreed that the work they had been doing was “more gruelling” than it would have been without the rain damage.
“We could pick a handful of five to ten cherries, and only be able to keep one or two,” he said.
Nevertheless, the overarching impression from Millwater and Turner was that the project was having a positive impact on the young workers - building resilience, teamwork and a sense of community, as well as hopefully starting some of them off on a career path in the horticulture industry.
“They struggled on day one,” said Turner, “but by day two they had got their head around what they needed to do and were working pretty hard. It’s a friendly atmosphere and they’re having fun. It’s nice to see them working.”
Millwater added that, with a nine-week wait for mental health services in the local area, she believed being outside in nature, making connections and being part of a team could be a gamechanger for young people - and was helping the organisations learn how to better help young people find employment in future.
Finally, the project was also helping to foster local relationships between the youth and the orchards on which they were working. A number of orchards had provided their workers with refreshments, including scones with homemade cherry jam, and spent time talking with them - with Sid Dyer at Rima Downs Enterprises recalling he was “really impressed” with the team, who had worked all day in the rain, and that they had “completely changed [his] views on today’s youth.”
Read edition 1009 of the Wānaka Sun here.