Orchardists say more than $600m is set to be lost to regional economies like Hawke's Bay's as a result of the massive shortage of workers to pick fruit.
The region's orchardists, exporters and growers reliant on seasonal work say they've worked through the season with "anxiety and desperation beyond belief".
On Wednesday they called a press conference to demand the Government open a travel bubble with the Pacific islands before the 2022 season, to allow the free flow of what would normally be up to 14,410 workers arriving as part of the recognised seasonal employer scheme.
Thousands of tonnes of fruit is now being left to rot on trees in Hawke's Bay.
The apple and pear industries alone are predicting losses upwards of $600m to provincial New Zealand economies, with national crop forecasts 14 per cent down on 2020.
Orchardists and other industry leaders detailed the extent of their experiences this season at an unpicked Meeanee orchard on Wednesday morning.
John Bostock said the plea to Government and immigration minister Kris Faafoi is not a want, but a need.
"We haven't been able to fill any of our packhouses on any given day throughout the whole season and simply don't have enough available New Zealanders to do the jobs," he said.
"We're calling on the Government to open the borders to Covid-free countries to come and work in New Zealand for next year."
The Government let 2000 RSE workers in to cover the shortage in 2021, but a lack of space for more in MIQ has left huge shortfalls in the usual labour force.
NZ Apples and Pears CEO Alan Pollard said early predictions of a potential $1.1bn hit to Hawke's Bay's economy as a result of the season's troubles wouldn't end up being far off the mark.
"As an apple industry, our fate is sealed for this season," he said. "But we've got Covid-free Pacific Island countries – why aren't we talking about free movement across those borders?
"We estimated an 11,000 [worker] deficit across horticulture and viticulture. We got 2000 in, but we're estimating we're between 5000 and 10,000 short."
Orchardist Bruce Mitchell said the ongoing shortage has created "anxiety and desperation beyond belief" for small-scale companies like his.
"We've never experienced a crisis like this," he added.
Medium-sized apple packhouse Green Planet Limited said it needs 85 employees just to function, but are having to make do with 65.
Owner Harry Masterson said the 65 workers often leave due to being overworked.
"We can't do another year of this," he said.
"Maybe Jacinda (Ardern) should pop along; have a job in our packhouse. She can have $22-an-hour and after, she can get married in the pruned grapes."
The labour shortage remains despite 2631 people moving off benefits into seasonal work nationwide between November 15, 2020, and February 28, 2021.
Ministry of Social Development director employment strategy Hugh Miller said the shift was testimony to people's willingness to move to where jobs are and to take a chance on something new.
Earlier this month, 100 people formerly on jobseeker support started working at JR's Orchards in Wairarapa - 40 of those relocated from Palmerston North, Horowhenua and the Kapiti Coast.
"Most of our clients want to work and these roles can offer further opportunities, including full-time employment," Miller said.
Paul Paynter of Yummy Fruits said his wage bill for staff is up 15 per cent on last year, but the crop is down 25 per cent – with only three weeks left of the picking season.
"When I first started with the company we had 14 full-time staff; now we have 210. For the first time in 25 years, that number is likely to go backwards this year," he said.
"There were about 5000 RSE trapped in New Zealand after last year's season, but we got all of ours back over to Samoa."
National Party horticulture and agriculture spokesperson David Bennet said the sector's frustrations have "boiled over", with the growers right to be "extremely frustrated at a Government that hasn't acted on their projections of labour shortages and loss to the Hawke's Bay economy".
"They need the certainty over labour supply to make business decisions," he said. "This season will involve substantial losses, but Government can act now to save next season.
"A failure to act or a mitigated response will compound the issues next year and lead to less downstream jobs and a reduced Hawke's Bay economy."
Craig Hickson, owner of Progressive Meats, said the labour shortage in the picking industry has taken its toll on other sectors.
"In my 40 years of operations in Hawke's Bay, this has been the most difficult and challenging and worst experience in terms of having sufficient people to work," he said.
"We've been short of workers right through the peak lamb season and we still remain short today."
Wattie's Hastings agricultural manager Bruce Mackay said being the "next one down the chain" has led to an erratic supply of product and staff absenteeism on a grand scale.
Agriculture minister Damien O'Connor said the shortage is one of the "difficult realities of Covid times.
"We have capacity constraints in MIQ and a legal obligation to give priority to New Zealand citizens. Having said that, the 2000 Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) visas secured for the horticultural sector was the largest MIQ concession allocated for any industry," he said.
"It was estimated at the time that there were about 5000 RSE workers inside the borders. We knew that there would still be a shortfall and have put in a number of initiatives to encourage New Zealanders to get involved in harvesting."