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The most expensive element in a vineyard is the labor required to produce the grapes, but for Kim Crawford and other New Zealand wineries, laborers are also scarce.

With annual labor requirements in the range of 24,000 people, Marlborough grape growers were still looking for upwards of 1,000 extra workers last winter.

Battling the same shortage of skilled labor faced by their counterparts across the developed world, New Zealand wineries just can’t find enough people to prune their vines each winter.

“We don’t have enough people to do the pruning,” said Erica Crawford, co-founder of the Marlborough-region winery during a recent trip to Vancouver, Canada. “There just aren’t enough people to come and work in the vineyard.”

The South Pacific, Brazil, and Europe are typical sources of farm labor in New Zealand, which has a domestic unemployment rate nearing 2 percent. But chill winter weather, modest pay rates given the arduous nature of the work, and strictures on immigration make it difficult for wineries to find the people they need, Crawford said.

“Why would they work for so little?” Crawford asks, noting that pipfruit growers face similar challenges trying to attract harvesters. “Some of them just drop their apple crop because they can’t get pickers,” she said.

To counter the problem, which promises to become worse as Marlborough’s vineyards increase to 50,000 acres from 37,000 acres over the next five years, Horticulture New Zealand unveiled a labor development strategy in December 2005.

The strategy aims:
—to employ New Zealanders first;
—ensure migrant foreign labor complies with immigration requirements;
—engage in skills training to ensure workers know what to do.

The strategy also aims for closer relationships and communications between grower groups, contractor organizations, and government to satisfy demand for workers. One initiative has been the launch of PickNZ, www.picknz.co.nz, a Web site that aims to connect workers with growers.