Picking cherries in New Zealand

It is the dream job for any working holiday visa holder. Backpackers from all over the world gather once a year in this beautiful corner of the world, in the heart of New Zealand’s south Island, only 60 kilometers away from Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world.  What makes picking cherries in New Zealand so special, or so much better than any other fruit harvest season?

Imagine yourself holding a bucket attached to a cradle around your back. Your job, for up to even twelve hours a day, is to fill that bucket as many times over as you can. Would you rather be carrying watermelons, apples or cherries?

…That’s what I thought.

Besides, you can make up to 350 New Zealand dollars in a day (240 USD). The bad news? The word has been spread A LOT,so thousands of people are fighting for those jobs, in here there is a complete guide to prepare yourself if you are thinking on coming to New Zealand.

WHERE?

The Central Otago region is in the southernmost half of New Zealand´s south Island. The town you want to head to for Picking cherries in New Zealand is named Cromwell and its 58 kilometers away from Queenstown. Other possible destination is the nearby town of Alexandra, located 33 kilometers south east of Cromwell , along the Clutha River. Why Cromwell? Most of the cherry production is there and the two biggest exporting companies have their providing orchards in the whereabouts.

WHEN?

Depending on the year, cherry picking season starts on the second half of December or early January. It lasts anywhere from 5 to 8 weeks, but production might be paused due to rain or extreme heat.

HOW?

First of all, you need a visa to work legally picking cherries in New Zealand New Zealand. Most people here is currently a Working holiday visa holder. However, most years the ministry of development issue a special visa for working in the Central Otago region in the horti/viticulture industries called the seasonal worker visa. This means that you can come on a visitor visa and get the change of status here in New Zealand.  To work though, you’ll need to open a bank account and get an internal revenue department tax number (IRD number), so if this is your plan I recommend arriving a few weeks prior to the beginning of the season.

The complete process of cherry production involves several roles, the two most frequently offered are pickers, and workers for the packhouse (packers). Cherry picking consists on going out to the trees on the orchards with a ladder and collecting cherries following the instructions that management might have for any given day. Some of the most common are to avoid fruit with coloration issues, splits, with lumps or doubles, or any bug trace. Every day there will be a specific color and caliber as standard and you can’t go below it, so it’s not just shaking the trees and collecting all the fruit from the ground.

Cherry picking is normally paid on a variable basis, according to how many buckets (5 kgs) you are able to fill. Depending on the orchard you have to make from 2 to 4 buckets per every hour worked to make minimum wage. If you don’t make it you will still get minimum wage but your job is in jeopardy, 2 or 3 days straight below that and you are out.

In the bigger orchards there is a role that might be interesting called lifter. Lifters are the guys that grab the buckets from the tree lines and take them to the quads for recollection and then sending them to the pack house. There are a lot of lifter positions and their job is less intense physically, however, normally they would make minimum wage or maybe a little more, while a fast picker might get twice that much.

Me picking at NZ Cherry corp.

Me picking at NZ Cherry corp.

Depending on the orchard and fruit availability you might be asked to stop working in advanced, especially if due to climatic factors the orchard is not producing good enough fruit. Locals say that one season every 4 or 5 years is a bad season, and that means poor bussiness for our fellow backpackers as well. This year (2016) the forecast showed a storm approaching for several days, so we picked extra hours for almost a week, which meant season was over before the 1st of February on most orchards.

Packhouse crew working.

Packhouse crew working.

The work in the packhouse is a little less physically demanding, as it is held under cover from the sun. Normally there is a line where fruit is placed and your work will be to select the fruit and place it on the boxes on which they will be sold. It may seem easy but it takes a lot of concentration during long periods of time. The normal work schedule is 8 hours starting at 8 am and finishing around 4:30 PM. However is the pickers are working more hours, the packhouse workers will suffer the most, working shifts up to 15 hours daily. Consider all of that time you will be standing, and depending on your position on the line you can be as low as 2°C. Most workers end up buying warmer clothes on the local Salvation Army store.

 

 

HOW MUCH.

We cannot speak about income without pointing out the very big differences there are between your potential employers. There are two orchards providing the biggest Kiwi companies, serving mainly China, the local market, Australia and also the new strong economies of South Asia such as Singapore and Hong Kong. I am going to stop and speak about this two companies in further detail.

45 South.

Located  on the road heading to Queenstown, 45Sth is the most desired company by job applicants. Is it the best? I will declare a tie with the second one. What´s so great about this company is its excellent proccesses, including their online recruitment process. The company is stricter than any other about quality control and their packhouse is the most modern and friendly for their workers. Also, with over a hundred and fifty há. of trees on its orchards, if you get a job there and you deliver, you are likely to be employed for the longest in the area. There is also a small difference in favor of 45 sth in terms of how much money you can make. If you are a picker the bucket is paid at a 7.50 NZD on average (It may vary along the season depending on how hard it is to pick or how fast they need the fruit out of the orchard)

NZ CherryCorp.

Located only a few hundred meters away from its main competitor, this 40 hectare orchard  is totally covered by a net protecting the trees from birds and insects, and workers from the sun.. That gives this company  the highest quality fruit, but also raises the standards for pickers, no other orcharrd is as demmanding in terms of quality control of the fruit picked as this one.. Being as it is, a company focused on quality, you might be able to land a job as quality control. Basically your job would be to check that pickers are fulfilling the day´s requirement for the fruit. CherryCorp also has an online application process,and it pays special attention to applicants with experience, hopefully in this same place. A bucket here is paid at 6.00 NZD normally, but you also get to work more hours a day on average.

So, wanna know how much money you can make? You only need 2.1 buckets and hour in 45 sth and 2.45 in Cherry corp to make minimum wage (14.75 NZD/hour).

Is it possible? It is very possible. A non experienced picker will probably start doing more than that. This does not imply is an easy job for anyone as it combines both physical strength and ability. If you average 3 buckets an hour, then we are talking about more than 140 NZD a day. Witha  few weeks practice lots of guys are making 4 bins an hour and the guys with more than one season experience can go up to 7 (400NZD a day!). Packing gigs are paid an hourly rate, commonly the minimum 14.75 NZD an hour. Having said that, it seems that very often this guys get to work extra hours to push their income a little higher.

Both this companies also provide some transportation service to the town´s campgrounds and holiday park.

So what´s the catch? It can´t be this great, could it?

Well, it is great for everyone who gets in, but for every employee might be hundreds of applicants, so it is really hard to get in. The general recommendation is to apply online early in the year, this means mid December at the latest. Human resources build huge databases of potential employees this way and they tend to go on a first come, first serve basis.  This also means that people on a working holiday visa is placed one step above than people on seasonal visas, as these ones normally can´t get their visa number until January, and only then apply to their Internal Revenue number (IRD number). Both of these are required on the online form. Is there still hope for people that didnt apply before January? It is normally the case that some people in the list will never show on the region, and besides the process is done by people, so if you are able to stand out from the rest once you are there, you might still land a position. Also, it pays to be pushy, people showing up for several days straight at the recruitment offices all seemed to get something, rottion is very high with backpackers just continuing their way so its never too late to try.

Although this information is based on the 2 biggest let me just mention some other potential employeers:

  1. Sarita Orchard. Smaller, therefore their season is the first to be over.
  2. Suncrest/Mr Jones: Pays 5.00 NZD the bucket but is a good option for they too run a long season.
  3. Fortune fruit company. Outside of Cromwell in the road to Wanaka, it has its own cheap campground so might be a good option.It only pays 3.00 NZD the bucket, but is far less strict with pickers so you might compensate by packing twice as many buckets.

 

Some of this orchards have their own campgrounds and will charge fees as low as 8 NZD a day, but then again the uncertainty  makes it harder to commit to go and stay and work for them.

The area is also very rich in vineyards. However, grape picking season starts on March, so unless you want to work digging weeds and other keeping positions, it is not really competitive with cherries. Last but not least, if you have the working holiday visa and a good level of english, you should consider to apply to available positions in the hospitality industry, as the beauty of Cromwell and Lake Dunstan attracts thousands of tourists during the summer. This jobs are definitely harder to get, for there is no agencies that can help you and every company will post positions separately. Also, while very few Kiwis want to work in the orchards, stores, restaurants and hotels are packed with students making a little summer money.

I you are planning on going picking Cherries in New Zealand don’t hesitate to contact me at matias@rumbosimple.com.

Remember, it might get REALLY hot in Cromwell.

Remember, it might get REALLY hot in Cromwell.

Cheers!

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