Working in Cherry Orchard: Packhouse – Working Holiday New Zealand

Is this your dream job or perhaps something on your bucket’s list for your New Zealand Working Holiday experience? I have no idea why it is on everyone’s list, but now that I have completed 4 weeks in a cherry packhouse, it is a pretty normal experience for me; definitely not something which I need to do. In fact, to a certain extent, it is kind of rated as my least desirable job to date (of 5 jobs).

Just some background information for you:

Most of these cherry orchards do not just grow cherries. They grow the entire stone fruit family which includes apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums. Why are they known as ‘stone’ fruit? That’s because all these fruits have one hard like stone seed in the middle which explains the name. As cherries are the most popular and profitable fruit, most orchards have more than 70% of their operations focusing on cherries (the prized possession).

Anyway, in the entry below, I will run through the application process, list of orchards that I am aware of (plus their pros and cons if I have info) and finally my own experience of working in a Cherry Packhouse.

The application process

Cherries related jobs are one of the more popular seasonal jobs in New Zealand (I’m still figuring out why). The season usually starts mid to end December but companies (usually the larger ones) will start accepting applications as early as September. Most companies prefer to accept applications via a form on their website. Some annoying ones require you to fill up their PDF document (or perhaps print, write and scan back to them). Others will post on facebook asking you to email them if you are keen and for some, i tried to just sending them emails to their ‘contact us’ and pray they get back to me. There was one that required you to do a walk-in or phone them directly. Sometimes, you just got to try everything if you’re desperate.

Well, the easiest way to get a job is to start working for the company even before the season starts. The season for apricot, peach and nectarine thinning usually starts in mid Oct – early November. If you manage to secure a job during the thinning season, they will usually rehire you for cherries (assuming that you are still keen to stay on and that you had been a good worker). Alternatively, the next best way is to be referred by someone who is already in the company, or had already been offered a position. Sometimes, you will even get to know seniors from the previous season who can share their ex-managers contact and you’re likely to be on an express train to get that job.

If you have none of these special connections, your best bet is to apply for every single company (which was what I did) and pray that the odds will forever be in your favour. Even if you do not get an offer early, do not be disheartened and worried about your CV because most of the time, the selection is all about luck, timing of your application and visa expiry date. If you still have not receive any offer nearer to the season, you can try to do walk-ins (usually more popular after christmas/new year where the season reaches its peak).

The Accommodation Crunch

As there will be a lot of people flocking down to the Central Otago area from December to January, the accommodation is a huge problem. I had been staying in Alexandra/Clyde area since mid October (in a lovely house) and sadly, I was asked to give up my room in December to people that had already pre-booked the accommodation few months ago for the cherry season. I couldn’t really find another place that I fancied and ended up staying in the worker’s accommodation.

The friends I had over at Cromwell had even bigger trouble finding decent accommodation. There were some who could find decent places with affordable rent and a comfortable people to toilet ratio but I’ve heard cases of people ending up in less than favourable places. Accommodation is highly competitive and referrals are your best bet.

I’ve heard people finding nice places from the notice boards at New World while I do know of others going around the estate talking to random people and asking if they have rooms for rent. All I can say is good luck and be prepared 😀

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Before I go into the sharing of my own experiences, here’s a list of companies (that I am aware of).

Disclaimer: I hold no responsibility over the accuracy of information below. Most of which had been share with me by friends and friends of friends plus googling and perhaps information from group chats etc. The information may not be up to date (I’m only typing this in Jan 2020) and further updates of this blog post may be subject to my time and availability.

Go ahead and compare the experiences, perks, benefits of the various orchards. Well, in case you have more than one offer, you can afford to be picky and choose your battles well.

If you have something to contribute to the list, feel free to leave a comment below and should you choose to be anonymous, please mention it in the comment as well.

Cromwell

This is the town with the highest concentration of cherry orchards. Try to secure your own housing early (assuming you have a car) as company’s accommodation ain’t exactly the best option (if you’re fussy). The ones that I know get the better accommodation(s) received referrals from their friends and made bookings with the landlord really early.

45 South

Website: https://45s.co.nz/

  • Size: Largest packhouse in Central Otago. Does not own much orchards but mainly pack for other orchards.
  • Application process: Apply online
  • Public Holiday: unsure
  • Accommodation available: yes
  • Can you wear earphones: unsure

Central Pac

Website: https://www.centralpac.co.nz/

  • Size: Rather big
  • Application process: Fill up their PDF form and email them
  • Public Holiday: No, explicitly stated in the contract that as-and-when seasonal workers are not entitled to be paid on public holiday.
  • Accommodation available: yes, but my friend didn’t like the place and shifted out in one week.
  • Can you wear earphones: yes
  • Other info: friends didn’t like this place as start-times kept getting delayed on last minute notice (due to machine issues). However, they were given rather long hours and it does not seem like a strict environment.

Fortune Fruit

Website: http://fortunefruit.co.nz/

  • Size: Rather big
  • Application process: Fill up their PDF form and email them
  • Public Holiday: unsure
  • Accommodation available: yes, cabins and campsites
  • Can you wear earphones: unsure

Jakimm Orchard

Website: https://www.jakimm.co.nz/

  • Application process: Apply online
  • Public Holiday: no, long break given from christmas till new year
  • Accommodation available: yes, discount was given when hours were little
  • Can you wear earphones: yes
  • Other info: allowed to bring home cherries that supervisors set aside

NZ Cherry Corp

Website: https://www.nzcherrycorp.com/

  • Application process: Apply online
  • Public Holiday: unsure
  • Accommodation available: unsure
  • Can you wear earphones: unsure

PurePac

Website: https://www.purepac.nz/

  • Application process: Apply online
  • Public Holiday: unsure
  • Accommodation available: unsure
  • Can you wear earphones: unsure

Sarita Orchard

Website: https://saritaorchard.co.nz/

  • Application process: Apply online
  • Public Holiday: Yes
  • Accommodation available: Yes, onsite $12/night
  • Can you wear earphones: Yes

Suncrest Orchard

Website: https://suncrestorchard.co.nz/

  • Application process: Apply online
  • Public Holiday: yes
  • Accommodation available: yes, limited
  • Can you wear earphones: yes
  • More info: Most reliable in terms of hours. Very strict environment, not allowed to talk. Pays the highest hourly wage among most orchards plus you can get a completion bonus if you stay till season end.

Alexandra/Clyde

20-25 mins drive from Cromwell. You’ll be able to secure cheaper

Clyde Orchards

Website: http://clydeorchards.co.nz/

  • Size: Family orchard. Packhouse in Clyde but there’s an orchard in Cromwell as well for thinning and picking
  • Jobs before Cherry season: Thinning opportunities available from November
  • Application process: Apply online but most of my friends got in through referral. They work with SSCO (employment agency) as well
  • Public Holiday: Somewhat. 1st contract ended on 24th Dec. New contract started on 2nd Jan (had x1.5 pay but no 1 day off-in-lieu)
  • Accommodation available: yes, limited
  • Can you wear earphones: Yes
  • Other info: Allowed to bring home cherries. Supervisors are really kind and nice.

Dunstan Hills

Website: https://dunstanhills.co.nz/

  • Size: Biggest orchard in Clyde/Alexandra
  • Jobs before Cherry season: Thinning opportunities available from mid-Oct
  • Application process: Apply online from website or walk-in after season starts
  • Public Holiday: Yes, you get paid. Work on PH: x1.5 + 1 day off-in-lieu
  • Accommodation available: yes, but not on-site
  • Can you wear earphones: Not allowed
  • Other info: Allowed to bring home waste cherries. Can continue for apricots/peaches. Hours are relatively longer compared to neighbouring orchards

Hinton Orchard & Packhouse

Website: http://www.hinton.co.nz/fruit/fruitprofile.htm

  • Jobs before Cherry season: Thinning opportunities available from November
  • Application process: Does not accept online applications and will require you to phone them and/or walk-in.
  • Public Holiday: Yes, you get paid
  • Accommodation available: yes, according to their website
  • Can you wear earphones: Not allowed but radio is available

H&J Roberts

Website: http://www.hjroberts.co.nz/

  • Size: Small family orchard.
  • Jobs before Cherry season: Thinning opportunities available from November
  • Application process: Does not accept online applications and will require you to phone them and/or walk-in.
  • Public Holiday: Yes, you get paid
  • Accommodation available: unsure
  • Can you wear earphones: Not allowed but radio is available
  • Other info: Can earn piece rate for cherry grading

Leaning Rock Cherries

Website: https://leaningrockcherries.co.nz/

  • Jobs before Cherry season: Thinning opportunities available from November
  • Application process: Online applications
  • Public Holiday: unsure
  • Accommodation available: unsure
  • Can you wear earphones: unsure

Panmure Orchard

Website: https://www.facebook.com/PanmureOrchards/

  • Jobs before Cherry season: Thinning opportunities available from November
  • Application process: Check FB and email them when hiring starts
  • Public Holiday: unsure
  • Accommodation available: yes, on-site $84/week or sleep in car, onsite.
  • Can you wear earphones: yes
  • Other info: as orchard is small, hours may not be long

Strode Road Orchard

Website: https://www.facebook.com/clydeorchard/

  • Size: Small family orchard.
  • Application process: Check FB and email them when hiring starts
  • Public Holiday: Yes
  • Accommodation available: yes, limited or sleep in car, onsite.
  • Can you wear earphones: yes
  • Other info: Only about 6 weeks

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My own experience – I am not going to be explicit about which orchard I’ve worked in but if you put in the analysis that I have done above, you should be able to guess which orchard I worked in. Alternatively, you can email me/FB message or IG DM me.

For the cherry season, I was lucky enough to receive 3 job offers – 1 from Cromwell, 1 from Alexandra and the other from the company that I had been doing apricot thinning at. I rejected the one in Cromwell as I couldn’t find accommodation there and my accommodation in Clyde had been pretty comfortable (but I had to move out anyway eventually).

I started at Packhouse A on the second week of December. Prior to the start date, I had to inform the supervisor in charge that I could only work for one week as I had to go to Packhouse B the following week as I needed Packhouse B’s accommodation. The notice period for Packhouse A was one week (most companies that I had worked for was 2 days) so I had no choice but to inform them on the induction/contract signing day. She was obviously unhappy (I mean who could blame her) but as there was huge rainfall that week which resulted in the closure of a major expressway (which disconnected Christchurch with the bottom half of South island) and some of her workers were unable to arrive by monday. As a result, she agreed to let me work till her workers came and as a result, I worked in Packhouse A for 2 days.

Packhouse A was really small. There was only 4 x 2 grading lanes and we had to do 400g local varieties and 2kg boxes. As we worked on local varieties, they were not very strict with the grading. We had to stand at the same spot for 2 hours or more (until smoko/lunch), only moving our frozen hands and fingers to touch and check every single cherry. Packhouse A allowed us to listen to music (which I did for an audiobook), but the mundane and repetitive motion makes it rather unbearable. Also, I’m not sure if it was the company’s rules or perhaps it was just our first two days, we were not given any cherries to eat or bring home. My housemate managed to pocket like 2 to 3 cherries and I only ate it on the smoko of my second day, which made me wonder.. what was the big deal with cherries? It was never a favourite fruit of mine.. Anyway, at the end of our second day, we were informed that we were no longer needed and it was our last day. It was expected but still felt rather upsetting when it happened. I gave up my all-so-good vineyard job for this cherry packhouse and I wasn’t feeling that happy in my job. Oh wells.

Packhouse B, the orchard where I did apricot thinning in, started work on the third week of December. Prior to our start date, we were informed that the hours will be low for our first two weeks and things will only picked up after christmas/new year. I wanted to start with Packhouse B on a later date but they did not allow me to stay in their accommodation until the day I started work so in the end, I was kind of left with no choice as I badly needed the accommodation (as I had no other options). Anyway, just some clarifications – I am traveling solo – which means that I have lesser accommodation options as I am not able to take up double room.

As ‘advised’, our hours were:

Week 1 – 19.25 | Week 2 – 28.75 | Week 3 – 48.375 | Week 4 – 50

Average: 36.59 hours – which seems pretty low as I could get 40 hours a week in other jobs that I had been working. However, the good thing about working through the festive season, assuming your orchard pays the public holiday money fairly, is that you get to earn 4 days of public holiday (valued at $141.60 per day for 8 hours average work) for 25 & 26 Dec, 1 & 2 Jan. Furthermore, we worked on 2 Jan for 6.25 hours and we were paid x1.5 for the hours worked that day.

As a result, our average weekly wage (after tax) was $699, and this was higher than my $650/week in a 40-hours regular job. At the end of the day, it seems like a pretty average deal.

To be honest, it would have gotten better if I chose to stay on for Week 5 and Week 6. I’m pretty sure my friends will earn a take home of $900 to $1,100 for the final two weeks but.. I had to leave.

One of the reasons why I chose to leave early was.. I really did not like the job scope.

  1. I didn’t like that my hands were freezing all the time and even wearing my own gloves underneath the rubber gloves provided, it was still insufficient to shield away the frost.
  2. I didn’t like to stand at the same spot for >8 hours a day. There were two positions that we could do – grader or packer. Being a grader means that you have to keep your eyes on the cherries and remove every bad cherry. If you’re doing local line, you just need to remove the ‘rubbish’ ones. If you’re doing export line, you will need to remove and sort the ‘rubbish’ and ‘local’ ones apart. If you are a packer, you will have to double check the cherries of the graders before it falls into the box. Your hands will be less cold if you’re a packer as you get to touch the ‘room temperature’ box half the time. You will also get a chance of walking a few steps while putting the completed box onto the belt and taking the empty boxes from the belt. It’s a busier role but in a mundane empty-brain job scope, everything will gets pretty dry and time will pass extra extra slowly.
  3. My company did not allow us to put on earphones for the job. There was an accident that happened some time ago and ever since that, they disallowed earphones and mobile phones from the pack house.
  4. Well, they tried to add music to the packhouse by bringing in a boombox one day after I tendered (I did give some feedback on how I felt about the job) but the machine was too noisy and you couldn’t really hear much of the music anyway.

Well, we were allowed to talk and chat with our friends, provided that we could maintain the quality of our boxes. HOWEVER, the quality of our boxes were heavily dependent on the speed of the machines; and the speed of the bucket tippers. I mean, at the end of the day, there’s only so much your eyes can see and how fast your fingers can move right? I don’t believe that our talking was the one that contributed to our low quality output but perhaps the speed of cherries moving was a greater factor but.. what can we say? We could only urm talk lesser and get bored faster in order not to get a ‘scolding‘.

Apart from the job scope which I really disliked, there were other non-related reasons that made me decide to leave early.

  1. I had been staying in the Otago region for 4 months and in Clyde/Alexandra for 3 months. I’ve reached the point where I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the weekends and.. I’m not the sort of person that can sit back and do nothing.
  2. I managed to sell my car and I found a friend traveling back to Christchurch from Cromwell in mid January. Following her would mean that I can transport my 9 pieces of baggage (big and small) comfortably back to Christchurch.
  3. I only had 2 months more in my visa and I did not want to waste anymore time in a job I didn’t enjoy.

To be fair, I wouldn’t say that this was a company issue (because I really like and appreciated my company, which was why I came back after apricot thinning) but it was 80% more of the job scope which I really couldn’t take it. Sometimes, I do question myself on why I wasn’t able to endure through the final two weeks but at the end of the day, I calculated that it would have meant $2k more in my bank account but I could end up being really unhappy for that two weeks.

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Parting words: I just want to say that.. cherry packhouse ain’t a bed of roses. Yes, it could still be a must-do in your working holiday experience but I just hope that after reading my post, you will be able to lower your expectations and toughen up yourself for the potentially harsh conditions. A couple of my friends do agree with me that this is their least enjoyable job to date so I know I’m not the only one but it wouldn’t be fair to say that this is what you will definitely be feeling.

Anyway, best of luck and do share with me on your experiences if you have any!

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