Stand-up with Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Primary Industries Minister Damien O’Connor and Police Minister Stuart Nash at Taylor Corp Orchard and Packhouse at Waiohiki. Video / Mark Mitchell
The Government will be asked to set up a fund to help Hawke’s Bay apple growers whose livelihoods have been wiped out by Cyclone Gabrielle to replant trees, as industry leaders start counting the cost
of damage to a region that produces 63 per cent of the nearly $1 billion export industry.
New Zealand Apples and Pears chairman Richard Punter said one of the issues the sector would be raising with the Beehive was that if Hawke’s Bay was to continue to be a major exporter, it would need financial assistance for growers to get back on their feet.
“One of the things we are going to be saying to the Government is that you need to set up some sort of fund. If you want Hawke’s Bay to be a primary produce exporter, you’re going to have to help us reinstate some of these orchards and get these orchardists back on their feet. It could be long-term finance for growers or it could be grants of the sort offered in previous disasters.
“Because this is not a gamble they took and lost. This wasn’t a bad business decision – this is a force of nature out of the blue. If they want to reinstate volume and the export revenue we provided in Hawke’s Bay, they’re going to have to help us.”
Agriculture minister Damien O’Connor has been approached for comment.
Meanwhile, Punter said it would be Wednesday before the industry had enough information to report on the extent of the cyclone’s impact on Hawke’s Bay orchards. Horticulture underpins Hawke’s Bay economy with apple earnings contributing around $700m annually.
Punter said it was important to realise that many of the region’s apple orchards, where this year’s harvest had just started, “are perfectly okay”. And in the other main apple and pear growing regions of Nelson, Marlborough and Otago, it was business as usual.
The sector’s international markets needed to hear this, he said.
“When you drive around Hawke’s Bay right now you can drive into an area that is devastated and then a little further on it all looks brand new and fine. There’s seemingly no middle ground.
“Around Hawke’s Bay a large number of orchards are perfectly okay. They’re being picked and processed right now and packhouses are working hard. One of our big jobs at the moment is making sure growers with crops to pick can get packhouse capacity.
“If we want people affected in Hawke’s Bay to have a future the apple industry needs to maintain its international clients. We can’t do that if the implication is that everything is devastated.”
Meanwhile, the owner of Mr Apple, New Zealand’s largest apple grower, is withdrawing its 2023 underlying net profit guidance.
Scales Corporation said the cyclone had affected four of its 15 orchards. Three had extensive damage and one was moderately affected.
”Further limited crop damage is also anticipated to the remaining orchards from the effects of the cyclonic event,” the company said in a statement to the NZX. The company estimated 3 per cent of the crop had been picked before the cyclone hit.
Scales said picking had started again with a “substantial proportion” of the crop still available, which would be harvested for export.
Punter said thanks to some “very clever software” using satellite imagery, his organisation was trying to put together a report that would give a more accurate picture of the extent of the orchard losses.
Hawke’s Bay’s big apple producers and processors were also surveying the impact to their operations orchard-by-orchard.
“One of the problems has been actually getting to an orchard (to see the damage). You can fly around in a helicopter and you will see orchards that no longer exist but you also see those still standing and look kind of okay. The only way to find out if they are okay is to get down on the ground and go through the trees to see if they’ve been underwater or not.”
Asked about morale in the industry, Punter said orchardists whose properties had been devastated were “shell shocked”.
“In the horticulture community everybody knows everybody else. This is not a community where you can stand alone. When this sort of stuff happens people rally round.”
NZ Apples and Pears had opened a portal on its website for members to post if they had surplus machinery and labour available to help start the clean-up.
“That’s the sort of community we have and that’s operating now.
“We are helping where we can growers whose packhouses have been affected to find (available) processing packhouses, and packhouses are opening their doors to those people.
“It is a community that looks after each other. But there’s no hiding the fact that people have been absolutely wiped out and these individuals are going to need a lot of assistance.”
Growers cannot insure their trees, Punter said.
“You can insure the fruit once it’s picked and into a packhouse but you can’t insure apples on a tree.
“That’s the difficulty for these people who’ve been wiped out. They will need assistance to clear (land) and replant.”
Clearing orchards of silt and debris would be a major issue.
“And you have to be able to access it first to get rid of the silt and huge piles of trees and wires and posts. It’s horrendous.”