Luring Kiwis back to farm `essential’ amid border closure

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By Adam Burns, Local Democracy Reporter

The agricultural sector in North Canterbury has expressed relief at the Government’s border reopening plan, but those on the ground have highlighted a wider issue farmers are facing a lack of home – grown skilled labour.

This has been compounded by farmers being unable to secure skilled workers off shore, due to a tightening of restrictions at the border over the past 24 months, causing significant strain for many in the primary sector.

Record low unemployment, which dropped to 3.2 per cent this week, further underlines how competitive the labour market is becoming.

But the agricultural industry is relieved some respite may be on the cards as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlined a phased plan on Thursday to reopen the country. It starts with vaccinated Kiwis and other eligible workers from Australia from February 27.

The criteria will open up to New Zealanders and eligible travellers including skilled workers, from anywhere in the world a fortnight later.

MIQ will not be required, however travellers will have to self isolate on arrival.

Medbury dairy farmer David Hislop said the pandemic and the border closure underlined bigger questions around attracting Kiwis back into the agricultural sector.

“We’re offering full time hours, not piecemeal work, good rates, good housing and a good community to live in, he said.

“I’m sure a lot of those skills are transferrable.”

Hislop said a lot of his staff who had residency had been doing it really hard during Covid.

“They can’t go home to the Phillipines to visit family, so opening up the borders is a real positive from that perspective.”

Similar sentiments were raised by Rural Women New Zealand board member and North Canterbury dairy farmer Sharron Davie-Martin, who said unfair criticism of the sector had put Kiwis off.

“They’re (Kiwis) are still not coming into farming,” she said.

“We have to show the attractive parts of farming but we also have to stop slagging it.”

DairyNZ launched a campaign last week, aiming to help communities understand what drives dairy farmers, and to encourage young Kiwis to get into the dairy sector.

Davie-Martin said she was thrilled the borders were set to be reopened to rest of the world, although last year’s fast-tracked skilled worker visa scheme had significantly alleviated the challenges.

Federated Farmers’ North Canterbury provincial president Caroline Amyes hoped the announcement provided some certainty for farming contractors who were “doing it tough”.

Ms Aymes asys the dates have to happen and MIQ spots which had been made available for New Zealand citizens who could now isolate at home, needed to be freed up for those the agricultural industry was desperate for.

Waimakariri MP Matt Doocey said it was good news for businesses and workplaces that relied on New Zealand being open to the world.

“I’ve been contacted by very concerned business owners across the electorate who are struggling to get skilled staff they need to survive,” he said.

“National has been calling on the government to end the lottery of human misery that is MIQ and it’s great all those Kiwis stuck overseas now have light at the end of the tunnel.”