Rural Contractors NZ has postponed its annual June conference and cancelled 7 Agrichemical workshops planned for May but welcomes confirmation that agricultural contracting is regarded as an essential service through the COVID-19 shutdown.

RCNZ president David Kean says the Essential Services List produced by the Government yesterday allows rural contractors to continue to support farmers as entities involved in food production.

“That’s the vast majority of our work and many of us are still flat stick with work including maize production, grass harvesting, sheep dipping and other tasks that will assist in ensuring supermarkets continue to get food supplies both here and abroad.”

The RCNZ Board had earlier met via an urgent video conference on Friday night to consider a range of issues arising from the COVID-19 crisis.

“We took the decision that putting off the conference for a year was the only option. We will look to have the conference in June 2021 in the same Rotorua venue.

“In cancelling our Agrichemical workshops we were heeding the Government’s earlier advice to avoid any non-essential travel and meetings.

“Our CEO Roger Parton is now working with our Agrichemical workshop partners – Growsafe, Responsible Care and Nufarm to run the workshops as a webinars so our members can still stay up to date with rules and best practice – and get their CPD points.”

David Kean says the RCNZ Board has also halted its plans to recruit a new CEO to replace Roger Parton who was due to retire in September.

“We were just about to start advertising but in the current circumstances we felt it was best to put a hold on a new hire. Roger confirmed he could stay on for a year to provide continuity through the Corona crisis and we’re very pleased to retain him.”

RCNZ Board members at Friday’s extraordinary meeting said their operations were still in full swing, with maize cropping and grass harvesting, in particular, still to be completed.

Many RCNZ members around the country are dependent on mostly Irish and English contract recruits to fill out a shortage of skilled machinery operators.

Some of these have left for home as the COVID-19 crisis bites but many still have a month or more’s work and are opting to see that out. Roger Parton said the Approval in Principle to bring in operators for the 2020/21 season was progressing.

As for the risks posed by COVID-19, David Kean says contractors were taking the same sorts of precautions as most employers, urging use of hand sanitisers and soap as well as encouraging staff to take leave if they felt unwell.

He noted that contractors were at much less risk than many people.

“We’re often working alone a lot of the time and effectively that’s self-isolation.”

David Keen says farmers can protect themselves by using tools such as Tracmap. These allow them to create a job for a contractor, specify what chemicals are to be used, whether these need to be provided or accessed on farm, and receive on farm/off farm messages, all without human contact.

“Both farmers and contractors do need to be aware, however, that we are only able to provide services that are essential to supporting food production over the next month. This will include crop protection and grass production but not at this time spraying a paddock of thistles.”

Wairarapa-based board member Clinton Carroll said contractors would continue to work with the farming community through the crisis.

“Everyone needs to eat and many farmers need contractors to help keep that going.”

He said contractors and farmers go through economic downturns quite regularly so were better placed than most to come through what was emerging.

“To date, the drought has been a bigger issue for many of us than Corona virus,” said Clinton Carroll.

Waikato-based RCNZ vice-president Helen Slattery agreed the drought was hitting farmers hard and creating major concerns for their mental health.

Contractors were also facing pressure with maintaining skilled operators some of whom had returned home early to Europe. However, she said Kiwi operators from industries such as forestry seemed to be more available than previously.

Helen Slattery says rural contractors expected to be affected by COVID-19 but less than other sectors.

“Farmers have to keep going as they are an essential industry and we have to support them,” said Helen Slattery.