Saturday, December 9, 2023

What about the workers? Land-use change’s forgotten resource

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New research aims to help smooth out peaks and troughs in production in different land uses.
Increasing milk production from pasture is the most cost-efficient way to boost production.
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By Delwyn Dickey for Our Land and Water

Labour shortages are an ongoing problem when land use changes.

A shortage of workers in the dairy industry in Canterbury and Southland after dairy conversions took off 20 years ago saw labour gaps filled by overseas workers. Around 1400 Filipino staff are now employed on Southland dairy farms alone.

When land-use change in an area or region is being considered, decision-making often revolves around profitability, climate and soil suitability, said Kenny Bell, senior research manager with Scarlatti. The lack of a big enough local work force can be overlooked, as can the costs of constantly re-training a transient workforce bought in to cover seasonal shortfalls. 

When something unexpected crops up to interrupt the labour flow, markets can be affected, as happened in the kiwifruit industry during the covid pandemic. Skilled staff shortages saw reputations take a serious hit, as export fruit quality slumped.

Bell is involved with research, funded through Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, looking at workforce requirements for different land uses and how these may vary over time (for example, as fruit output increases as young trees grow in a new orchard).

The data collected is being used to produce a dashboard that will help smooth out peaks and troughs in production in different land uses, to help provide a stable workforce and stable employment.

Large landowners growing a crop such as blueberries, harvested in February/March, could use the dashboard to decide what else to grow to keep staff employed year-round.

There are social benefits too, giving more options to young people wanting to stay in their rural areas and towns but struggling with limited job options.

“A lot of people see that lack of stable employment can be the main reason people also stay away,” Bell said, “including hapū and iwi who want to bring people back home.”

Some businesses already try to tie new developments with current workforces. In Warkworth in north Auckland, staff at capsicum giant Southern Paprika are now also involved in avocado production with the Harbour Edge Avocados collective, due to their different seasonal harvesting peaks. This provides more staff with fulltime work and others with more months of continuous work in the area. The change occurred after a former 400ha dairy farm at nearby Tapora recently became one of the biggest avocado orcharding operations in the country. 

Other aspects of the research will look at the possible effects of increasing wages to attract staff to an area and smooth out regional-scale workforce peaks.

The research will be of interest to people involved in regional development initiatives to investigate new land uses or create large water storage facilities, Bell said. One water storage project underway in Northland aims to encourage land-use change from livestock farming to horticulture across thousands of hectares of land.

Findings and resources from the Workforce Implications of Land Use Change research project will be released in early 2024. 

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