Local workforce helps family apple business weather challenging times

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10 August 2022, NZ: Adaptability, innovation and a focus on community and worker wellbeing, has enabled large pipfruit operation, CAJ Apples, to move from strength to strength with the support of the local workforce, even in challenging times. AIMEE WILSON reports.

Driving south through the Teviot Valley and past Roxburgh in Central Otago, a distinctive CAJ Apples logo starts to pop up at several orchard entrances.

Eventually, a large packhouse appears at Ettrick – the literal engine room of CAJ Apples where 11 varieties of pipfruit are sorted and exported to over 60 countries worldwide.

CAJ Apples owner, Con van der Voort, has nurtured the family-built pipfruit business and has been orcharding for over 60 years. He knew very little about apples when he first started, and had a background in market gardening. Today, Con is considered a market leader in the New Zealand pipfruit industry. He remains heavily involved in the development and management of them all and drives around his orchards every day after morning tea in the packhouse.

But this season has been different. There are no backpackers – just plenty of hard-working staff of all ages, some of whom drive an hour to get there, thanks to the Seasonal Work Scheme that covers petrol and relocation costs for those who make a commitment to move into the area.

The scheme has been integral at employing and retaining a workforce in an industry that is usually reliant on young overseas travellers.

CAJ Apples rebranded with a new logo in 2019 and launched a hugely successful recruitment campaign shortly afterwards which involved reaching out to neighbouring communities to look for new, local staff.

Local newspapers, bulletins and even Facebook community pages were targeted. It wasn’t long until new people started arriving from Alexandra, Tapanui, Clydevale, Lawrence and Glenore.

Daughter Jackie is the business’s post-harvest manager and in charge of the packhouse. She says the huge investment in local staff has paid off, with better working conditions including working Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm. She says the better work-life balance has been a big attraction and benefits everyone.

There are movie nights and quiz nights too, an apple bake-off, wearable hat day and cake day Fridays.

“We do a lot to bring our people together, which helps build a positive culture,” Jackie says.

In 2016, the business decided on implementing a four-stage redevelopment of CAJ, starting with the upgrade of the staff amenities, extending the packhouse shed and upgrading all of the plant, equipment and infrastructure. The investment certainly looks like it has paid off with a well-engaged, supportive workforce that saw CAJ through the pandemic.

Pre-Covid-19, New Zealanders made up approximately five percent of the orchard’s employee pool. That demographic has now completely changed, with New Zealanders constituting 100 percent of CAJ’s workforce. The company employs approximately 90 staff, with 60 or more of those staff being placed on the packing line. While it hasn’t been easy, being flexible and adaptable to people’s needs has worked in the business’s favour.

“This has created a different culture in the packhouse,” Jackie says.

The last time CAJ Apples employed this many local staff was 30 years ago when the season coincided with pre-lamb shearing and the primary industries in the area were sharing workers.

Jackie says the old ways are coming back – orchardists are working collaboratively and sharing their staff now, with one van load of 12 experienced workers coming every day from the Clyde Orchards to help out.

Not only are there people aged over 60 on the packing line, they are also enjoying the work. Mechanisation in the packhouse has made the work less labour-intensive, more streamlined and eased the pressure.

“We’ve slowed down the process to speed up,” Jackie says.

Covid-19 has obviously been challenging, with 55 staff off sick in one week, only 12 people on the packing line with no stackers, Con said. They also had to stop picking for two days to reduce pressure on coolstores and the packhouse.

Back in the control room at the centre of the packhouse, CAJ Apples employee Sally Mathieson is looking at a large screen to track apple defects, and control operator Thomas Graydon is waiting for the apples to drop.

Sally moved to Roxburgh from Australia with her husband two years ago and recently used her initiative to step up the ladder at CAJ. Having spent time on the line packing and learning everything about apples, quality and packhouse production, she now runs the defect sorter for CAJ.

Thomas is a young university graduate specialising in commerce who says he loves his new role. Down in the packaging area, Carl Burndred from the Bay of Plenty spends six months in the South Island – living in his motorhome and enjoying the work at CAJ as their packaging coordinator.

“I knew they were short on people,” Carl says.

“This company is great to work for because it’s family-run, has a modern plant and the hours are great.”

The state-of-the-art CAJ packhouse operates for four to five months – February to end of July – and is designed to pack approximately 2500 TCEs (cartons) an hour.

Apples are ordered from the Turners and Growers coolstore, also based in Ettrick, where they are scanned into the system – having been picked and stored earlier in the season. There is an atmosphere of productivity and content workers as you walk into the packhouse, with conveyors operating left and right and a buzz of happy people all involved in their work.

Each apple is washed and sanitised by a new in-feed system by Dutch company Greefa, integrated with the CR Automation high-pressure apple wash system and brush bed.

The 14-Lane Greefa GeoSort machine has increased production by 60 percent since its arrival.

CAJ Apples has come a long way since Con and his wife Eileen purchased their first orchard, Nithdale, in 1960. Since Nithdale, Con went on to purchase five more orchards, developed several new orchards from scratch, rebuilt a burnt down packhouse in the year 2000 and most recently, acquired the Roxdale Cannery at Coal Creek, where all of the company’s apple wastage is processed. His industry knowledge and contributions have not gone unrecognised either, with the New Zealand award for Outstanding Contribution to the Pipfruit industry being presented to Con in 2019.

Under Con and Jackie’s direction, CAJ Apples has not only grown to manage 400-ha – 340-ha of which are apples – but built a reputable, intergenerational business that is valued and supported by a sustainable, local workforce.

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