The Strawberry Shortage

Strawberries NZ

A shortage of available labour is one of the most pressing concerns for the growing industry. Sally King, Executive Manager of Strawberry Growers New Zealand (SGNZ), said that following the short-term plant shortage, availability of labour was the next pressing concern for the industry as strawberries are 100 percent hand harvested to ensure optimum quality.

“That makes us very vulnerable to labour market shifts,” said King.

There is an anticipated 30 percent fewer strawberry plants and produce for the upcoming season, which will likely drive the price of strawberries up due to their scarcity. A part of the scarcity also has to do with the strawberry plants taking a couple of years to be ready to go into commercial beds, a combination of retirement for SGNZ’s larger propagators, coupled with the abysmal weather last season, which created disease in the elit propagator stock. With the labour shortage, these factors have created the perfect storm for a strawberry shortage.

However, no the industry has new propagators starting, so this will not likely be an ongoing issue.

“Many of our bigger growers have supply arrangements with the supermarket chains, but our smaller growers do a substantial farm gate and farmer market trade.”

SGNZ supports its growers by investing in research into innovating growing methods and reducing pests and diseases in strawberry crops to ensure consumers around New Zealand receive the highest possible quality of strawberries, both in taste and health.

The strawberry season is highly weather-dependent; the vertical farming growing solution is an emerging technology in New Zealand. King said that the association has one grower in Horowhenua who is using this growing method, understanding and managing an indoor environment and climate, which is quite a unique growing experience compared to the challenges many growers face with traditional growing methods.

There are higher costs associated with the climate-controlled growing method, but it does serve the advantage of supplying fresh and delicious fruit year-round.

“I think the industry at large is taking a “watch and wait” approach on the whole, and clearly climate change impacts will be a factor, but it too early to predict how much of the market will want to take the step.”

One exciting innovation the industry has is new plant protection techniques such as hot baths or even plant saunas for the plant stock to lower disease before planting. There are new techniques, lots more grown on tabletops, and some are even indoors (vertical farming).

The SGNZ also supports the industry's expansion into global markets, such as Vietnam, which has promising potential.

Another primary concern for the industry has been the vast amount of additional government compliance.

“Not much of the additional impost adds much for the consumer. That’s a worry. SGNZ works hard to advocate for our growers to understand the regulations we must work under.”

The reliance on imports for processing is also a concern. There have been some serious health scares from imported fruit. King explained that people don’t realise that very little of the frozen fruit is New Zealand-grown, so substantial food miles and lower quality standards are a risk to all.

Many importing countries subsidise strawberry growers, which is not a level playing field for guys.

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