Elaine, Finya, Roxy, Wesley, Suellen and The Dude – Rudi. Lianne, Callum and Sytze (in the tractor) – heads down doing the mahi Photo Supplied

With worker shortages continuing everywhere, it was a big challenge for Central Otago vineyards to harvest their grapes this year, with a bumper crop for the region.

Managers needed to think outside the square.  Some advertised in unusual places, some closed their tasting rooms in advance of picking, some called in favours from friends and family, and all made flexibility and health their focus.

James Dicey of Grape Vision says,

“The dream run almost came to a screaming halt, due to the lurking menace of Covid. We experienced a pretty fantastic growing season for vintage 2022 and things were looking great right through to harvest. Despite best efforts to implement public health advice Covid tore through some of our teams and meant we had to dig deep to get through harvest.”

Misha Wilkinson, of Misha’s Vineyards, had, like other winegrowers, put in ‘lockdown’ measures in the days leading up to harvest, and recruited from a new source for her, saying,

“To secure harvest staff this year, we had to take a different strategy and many of our team were recruited from the Motorhome Association, so it was a different crew than our usual mix of international backpackers. There were naturally some concerns about how our team would cope with a month of picking, especially with our steep slopes, but there were no issues. Our Vineyard Manager, Michelle Dacombe summed it up: “I would definitely have some ‘motor-homers’ back for a future harvest”.

Michelle says,  “A big help for those times and issues has been a morning tea shout, a Friday beer or doing a team ‘wine-tasting’.  Trying to build a good work environment whilst being productive.”

I gave a small helping hand at Stewart Town Vineyard, where Kerry and Doug recruit primarily from friends, and get the harvest completed in a day.  As usual it was fun, with a beautiful day, plenty of laughter and superb catering.

Shaun Fogarty, CEO of Seasonal Solutions, says, “Overall the season has been a good one for growers.  We could have done with more picking staff as Covid-19 played a big factor with staff testing positive needing to isolate for 7 days.  The lack of backpackers was also significant; however the local communities should be commended for coming to the assistance of many of our growers.   Over the next 2-3 months we are planning to see the return of many of our Pacific staff back to their homes.  Many of these men and women have been away from home for an extended period which has not been easy when separated from families.  We are very lucky to have such committed team of employees.”

The valley gave a combined sigh of relief when harvest was complete.  The workers were rewarded with celebratory harvest meals.

This year, with fruit of exceptional quality and above-average yields, the task of harvest was a huge anxiety, but thankfully the industry came through.

As James says, “All the grapes are now in and we have achieved the double – good yields and great quality!”