Abe de Wolde owns five Heddon Bush farms which milk 4500 cows and hires between 30 and 35 staff, depending on the season.
For the past two months his HR staffer has been trying to fill three 2IC roles on his farms, but without luck.
“It’s very slim pickings,” de Wolde said, adding his business offered above average pay rates.
“We have investigated [hiring] 25 people. We are continually looking for people in all sorts of areas.”
Of his 30-odd staff on farm, just two were New Zealanders.
“New Zealanders just don’t want to work on dairy farms,” he said.
“We employ nine different nationalities, India, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, Holland [and New Zealand].”
With the visas required to hire overseas workers, it would be much simpler to hire Kiwis, with his company set up to train them on the job, but they weren’t coming forward, he said.
Being short-staffed meant employees from his company’s contracting business were working on its dairy farms and the people on its dairy farms were working longer hours.
The skills shortage resulted in workers “running around like headless chooks” trying to get the work done, which posed the risk of accidents, animal welfare issues and environmental disasters.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said.
“It’s shocking … it’s a complete train wreck waiting to happen.”
De Wolde said the people in government needed to get out of their offices and see what was happening.
“It’s all fair and just to say from your comfortable Wellington office that you should be employing Kiwis, but if there’s none around what do you do?
“I think the borders should open and we should be able to get more overseas people into the country.”
Southland Federated Farmers sharemilker chairman Jason Herrick said de Wolde was one of many farmers looking for staff, with a survey done by Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ revealing a shortage of roughly 1800 workers in Southland.
He warned of the stresses the staff shortage was causing farmers in May, and this week he reiterated those concerns.
“We don’t have enough staff to be able to pay attention to detail.”
The Government’s announcement of border class exceptions for 200 dairy workers to be allowed into the country was a “blip in the pond”, and many more were needed, Herrick said.
And he believed the Government needed to do more to retain the migrant workers already in New Zealand.
“They are returning home because their families aren’t allowed to come here, and they can’t go home [for a visit] and just come back.”
Some were also moving to Australia and Canada which were offering four-year working residence visas, Herrick said.
Southland MP Joseph Mooney, who has launched a petition to get the Government to bring in more farm workers, said farmers kept the economy running during lockdown and they should be helped in their hour of need.
Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said he was well aware of the challenges the dairy sector was facing in recruiting staff, with his colleagues engaging with farmers at the Fieldays this week.
The border class exception for 200 dairy staff to enter the country would go some way to easing the pressure, and last week’s rollover of temporary visas would help provide certainty to those migrant dairy staff on such visas, he said.
The Government would continue to monitor the border and labour market situations and would extend visas again if necessary.
The mental health of farmers was of high importance and should not be swept under the rug, with the Rural Support Trust always there to be called on, O’Connor said.
“These are extraordinary times and the Government is balancing the needs of multiple sectors of the economy in its management of MIQ capacity.”