Rural contractors say allowing in 125 skilled agricultural machinery operators next season falls way short of what’s needed to prevent dangerous work pressures causing severe stress and fatigue and impacts on agricultural production.

Monday’s Government announcement of 5000 exemptions to border controls included 125 mobile agricultural machinery operators, subject to completion of a sector workforce plan, a model to upskill New Zealanders and agreed wage rates.

Rural Contractors NZ CEO Roger Parton says the 125 exemptions will help but a recent survey of his members showed a need for 400 experienced operators as an absolute minimum.

He has today released extracts from the survey which shows shortages of skilled machinery operators forced many rural contractors to work very long hours and face a lot of stress, accidents and cost with Kiwis brought in to do jobs for which they were not trained. Some contractors say they are considering leaving the industry after the 2020/21 season was so stressful because of the lack of skilled workers, compounded by having to manage inexperienced staff.

Roger Parton says rural contracting faces double disadvantages as a seasonal industry often working in the backblocks.

“While we pulled out all the stops to train and recruit more New Zealanders last season, working in sometimes remote areas without the facilities of an urban centre did not appeal to many of them.

“Even those who did start work after some basic training such as learning to drive a tractor didn’t have the aptitude or skills to drive complex machinery that sometimes even experienced contractors find challenging to operate.”

Roger Parton says the Rural Contractors NZ Board met yesterday and confirmed it will do all it can to again work with campuses such as Telford (Balclutha) and Taratahi (Wairarapa) as well as private training organisations to give more Kiwis the skills to start working in the sector.

“We’ve also committed to work with trainers and others to produce a workforce plan which will identify other strategies we can adopt to improve training and our attractiveness as a sector.’’

He says its pay rates are already rising as rural contractors are competing with industries such as construction and transport which are also facing labour shortages.

‘’You can already earn $50,000 working in a four months season and more than twice that in a year. Even with those pay rates, we face the reality that many people prefer to live and work in urban environments with better access to such things as entertainment, education and health services, connectivity and employment opportunities for partners.”

He says the Government’s had its own lack of success with the small numbers of people who took up payments to move to other areas for seasonal work.

Last spring/summer season, the Government approved 210 skilled machinery operators, most from Ireland and UK, to come here, of whom 176 arrived and found space in MIQ facilities, although some could only get in late in the season.

Roger Parton says he understands around 50 have chosen to stay on to work in the coming season and this seems to be part of the calculation which has seen 125 new operators approved for entry.

“We appreciate the fact that the Government has effectively moved to retain the same actual numbers who came to help us in the 2020/21 season – and that this is happening early enough for us to recruit and import people to start work in spring.”

“What the Government must acknowledge is there are limits to how many people we can recruit and train competently drive a $500,000+ machine – and then be happy doing so, living and working remotely for only a few months a year.”

Roger Parton says many farmers are largely dependent on contractors to provide them with the feed they need to get stock through winter and adverse weather events like the drought in many regions this year or to help ensure crops can be produced and harvested.

Without access to more skilled machinery operators, he fears some rural contractors will be put through another harrowing, stressful season with major risks to their health and safety.

“Many rural contractors were only barely able to meet farmer demand this season by working unacceptably long hours in machinery as well as trying to supervise inexperienced staff.”

Roger Parton says if rural contractors don’t have skilled staff, many farmers will be left without sufficient feed and facing tens of millions of dollars of lost production, which in turn impacts upon the economic recovery the Government wants to achieve.

The RCNZ is now seeking an urgent meeting with MPI to discuss the latest decision and see what, if any, discretion may be able to be applied given the health and safety and production risks posed by the announced border exemption for 125 skilled machinery operators.

  • Survey of RCNZ members – extract of some comments.

We have felt the fatigue and pressure from being understaffed without the experience we usually have in. We have 2 of the 3 Kiwis who want to come back in October. But with our managers being thrown fulltime in the seats of the heavy machinery we did not have the supervision happening throughout that we would prefer to have. Safety is the key here, we have been lucky with who we have employed, but not having the Managers being able to float has been tricky and risky and time consuming if assistance is required”

We are not sure what to do for next season.  Some people new to the industry from New Zealand and Overseas have been okay but others have been a disaster.  Knowing what we know now, next season is going to be even more difficult.  I think the only answer is to reduce productivity until more advanced skilled people come on board and hopefully the skilled staff we already have stay with us (no guarantee with this).  We will continue to train within our company with new people whom have potential and move internal staff up to more difficult roles.  This is not going to be a fast.  It will take years for us to get to where we were.  But we must be positive and safety must NOT be compromised.


“Would like to make a footnote that other than the severe stress of having to baby sit trainees with the potential of accident – the damage on our gear this year due to inexperience has been phenomenal. 

We have had a fantastic crew of 9 International boys this harvest from UK, Ireland & France…Due to the fact that we can only employ these experienced employees for around 6 months of the year it makes it impossible to train up NZers to do this position as we do not require these experienced harvest operators for 12 months of the year. This is the nature of our business.

We employed 5 kiwi workers – 3 left because the work was too challenging, they couldn’t have weekends off, were “tired” after a 9 hour day and slept in”

“We survived the harvest season with no overseas workers. It was a battle but we got there. The most disappointing thing was having 4 or 5 local people pull out in the few weeks leading up to harvest. You tend not to get this issue when an overseas person is coming.

“Just wanted to add that (my husband) said he could not survive, physically or mentally, if we had to do another harvest season under the same conditions as this one. I never thought I would hear that from him!!

This season has definitely made us question, where to from here? We have a son who has diesel in his veins and is keen to progress into the family business, however the government is making it so difficult for us in regard to staffing, we have thought seriously about winding things up. This not only impacts on the seasonal jobs we have available but would result in the loss of eight full time jobs.”


“We have employed 11 locals for the current season and 8 have left. Of those 8, 6 had little or no experience and no aptitude to be trained. They caused near road accidents with the propensity to be fatal… damage to farmers fencing and posts, drove machinery into drains.

Apart from one overseas worker we hired, all New Zealander this year; it has not been easy getting all these new people trained into qualified operators and I have had more machine damage than I care to think about. A number of these people have found it hard with the hours we work and the fact it is a 7 day operation. We were lucky that we were able to get some experienced staff but a high percent were new to our industry.”

“This 20/21 season has been a disaster! We have had to use NZ Drivers. I have had our operations manager full time on recruitment. Out of the seven employees coming through WINZ and MPI we now have one.  Along with that our operations manager has left due to frustration with client expectations and dealing with operators with no experience. After the spring season we have 4 broken tractors in our workshop our dealers can’t fix them because he doesn’t have the staff.  We can’t fix them because our mechanics are all out on tractor