Primary Sector Re-training

May 2021

The Primary Sector offering retraining for seasonal and permanent careers.

The primary sector offers golden opportunities for seasonal jobs and permanent career roles. But during the harvest season of 2020/2021, the Otago region was one of many around the country facing labour shortages, with the Covid-19 border closure preventing hiring of their usual experienced RSE workers, or casual backpackers usually employed while here on visitor visas. The situations vacant in Otago currently include career opportunities for New Zealand residents keen to relocate and re-train for a change of work direction, as well as for the lifestyle the region offers. 


Teviot Valley, in Central Otago, is typical of the fruit growing community. Stephen Darling, one of the three brothers who own and operate orchards in the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Cromwell areas, says not being able to have their usual numbers of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers has meant a significant drop in production for many of the mostly family-owned orchards and packhouses in the region. “And, of course, this has impacted everyone throughout the supply chain, from packaging suppliers to cool stores and the transport companies, as well as the local businesses where workers spend money.”  


Each year the Darlings grow, harvest and pack apples, pears, cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines for export and the domestic market in a business that had its beginnings with parents Bill and Joyce in 1963. 


Stephen says they depend on the highly skilled RSE workers that are mostly from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands to bolster the workforce, and to help guide overseas backpackers, permitted to work on visitor visas, and Kiwi students, that also come to pick fruit, but usually have no previous experience. “Our RSE workers are like family. Most have been coming to us for many years, and know our orchards and homes like their own. He adds as well as impacting orchardists, the RSE workers themselves and their families at home in the islands were suffering without the income. “They have no unemployment benefits. If there is no work, there are no wages for the family to pay school fees or rebuild their homes.” (As well as feeding and clothing families, the wages RSE workers take home with them help to rebuild homes, schools, churches and other community facilities that are often damaged during the cyclone season.)  


“Our sincere hope is that these post-Covid travel restrictions will be a thing of the past as we look forward to our harvest season this coming summer (ed: 2021-2022),” Stephen says. He and his fellow orchardists also look forward to seasons ahead when New Zealanders, be they young or not so young, will seek casual summer fruit picking jobs, as was the case in past generations of secondary school leavers and university students and graduates – ‘or anyone looking for a bit of adventure, the different work, new social connections and, let’s be honest, a fair bit of fun’.   


Stephen adds that during the harvest season there’s a popular swimming and socialising spot in the valley called Pinder’s Pond – ‘it’s a great spot to meet up and it’s buzzing most summer evenings after the work has been done for the day’.


Along with the seasonal jobs, the Teviot region is ripe for people seeking careers in the horticultural sector. Among the ‘career switchers’ who have opted for permanent positions in the region is James (Jimmy) MacKenzie. Originally trained as an electrical engineer, Jimmy and his American-born wife Chelsi moved to Roxburgh at the top of the Teviot Valley. Keen to buy their first home together, and with Wanaka real estate prices high, they were pleased to find that Roxburgh was more affordable. Jimmy commuted to his Wanaka-based job for a while, but now enjoys working just 10 minutes from his new role in orchard management.


John Tomkin, who has managed orchards for the CAJ van der Voort Group for more than 40 years, has been Jimmy’s boss, teaching him the ropes. Jimmy says of John ‘he’s such a wealth of information and it’s so awesome to be apprenticed to him’. He adds he’s keen to spread word about the career opportunities and the lifestyle in the region.


The CAJ Group where Jimmy works is one of the region’s leading orchard and packhouse operations. There are 10 varieties of apples grown here, with most destined for export, including old fashioned varieties like Granny Smith, Cox’s Orange and Red Delicious, along with the newer varieties of Royal Gala, Fuji, Jazz, Pacific Rose, Pacific Queen, Braeburn and the super-new variety, Koru. As well as fruit, the CAJ Group also produces apple concentrate that is sent to Nelson growers for cider.


Like others in the region, the CAJ packhouse features up-to-the-minute technology making for more consistent and accurate grading of fruit. Jackie van der Voort, who is the CAJ group’s post-harvest manager, and daughter of company founder Con van der Voort, says their technology has resulted in higher productivity which has meant protection of jobs, all the while reducing the average working week from 66 hours to 42.5 hours. 


MPI has created the Opportunity Grows Here website where people can go to find out more about the careers, training and links to jobs available in our primary industries – on vineyards, in forests, on farms, orchards and in aquaculture. While seasonal jobs are plentiful, many can be the beginning of a long-term career. And opportunities aren’t only in labour-based roles in remote locations. Some are city-based, including work in research and development, technology, business management, animal welfare, and marketing.


Showdown Productions Ltd.   Rural Delivery Series 16 2021