Dame Susan Devoy’s short stint in kiwifruit industry

For New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc.

In an unexpected move from semi-retirement, Dame Susan Devoy added “kiwifruit packing” to her already colourful CV during the nation’s lockdown period. Known to many for her previous roles in politics and renowned skills on the squash court, Susan has received an outstanding reference from her two-week stint packing kiwifruit at Apata Packhouse.

Apata Packhouse Managing Director Stuart Weston says it was a real thrill to work alongside Dame Susan or “Sue” as printed on her name tag. “She handled packing like a champ! She is hard core, a straight shooter with a real sense of humour, proving that fifties are the new twenties.”

Susan was one of many kiwis and visitors impacted by COVID-19, taking up kiwifruit work for their own reasons. Going into lockdown, Susan says she was keen to avoid growing lazy, and wanted to get outdoors and meet new people. She also wanted a job to save some extra cash to support her family if needed and couldn’t pass up the challenge to beat her sons’ previous record at their kiwifruit jobs. Past experience picking kiwifruit was enough to point Susan in the direction of Apata Packhouse in Katikati, her place of employment for the first few weeks of the lockdown.

“I could tell that people who recognised me were wondering what on earth I was doing there. Some thought I was doing undercover research, while some didn’t know who I was at all and I didn’t mind that,” she says. “That’s the great thing about the industry, there’s no special treatment.”

After successfully completing 10 days of 12-hour shifts packing and grading kiwifruit, the 56-year-old dame is under no illusion that the job is easy. “While I am a hard worker, the days can be tough and long and by the end of your shift you’re pretty knackered. In hindsight the work isn’t as bad as I thought it was,” she says. “It was definitely a learning experience for me and everyone else in the family; one of my sons learnt how to use the washing machine, for example, and dinner had to be ready by the time I got home from my shift.”

Susan says she is surprised to have completed 110 hours of work and enjoyed her time in the kiwifruit industry a lot more than she expected. In her opinion, the little gestures of gratitude from the employer went a long way in the workplace, and meeting new people and hearing their stories was a clear highlight.

“I met many ordinary New Zealanders working in extraordinary circumstances,” she says. “One was a mature couple in their 70s who joined the harvest every year, my floor supervisor worked two jobs to support her family, there was a newly-wed tourist couple who were meant to work in the ski fields and a group from Taiwan whose plans were disrupted by coronavirus. I have great respect for people out there at Apata and elsewhere, working hard and doing what they have to do for themselves and their families.”

Susan joked that she was surprised to not get promoted to a clipboard role but saw plenty of work opportunities available for staff who were willing to take it. “There’s always work available in the industry and I think flexibility and a stronger focus on mental health is key to getting more of the local workforce involved. I had a quick packing induction but most of the learning was done on the job. With packing you need to be fast and consistent, but when mistakes were made help wasn’t too far away and there were plenty of old hands to help when needed.”

Since finishing up at her kiwifruit job, Susan says she misses getting out and about. “My experience in the packhouse was a catalyst for getting my mojo back. I’ve realised I’m too young to retire and am now I’m looking for my next challenge. What would I do if I got a call back to do kiwifruit work? I’d have to cross that bridge when it comes,” she says. After taking an extended break from a hard day’s work however, she admits it would be hard to give up her days off again.

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