Hawke's Bay's horticulture sector finds itself at a crossroads as a result of labour shortages.
And whichever path it chooses, it's the little guys who will be left behind, those in the industry say.
Dave Llewellyn, of Llewellyn Horticulture, said with three weeks remaining in this season many horticulturists were still in "survival mode".
He's one of the lucky ones, he said. "We'll scrape through."
In a normal year during peak times, he employs a team of about 40 people with about 18 on each day, working six days a week.
This year they've only worked four to five days with a maximum of 15 people.
Llewellyn offered more flexible working hours this year, allowing for some to work at other orchards stretched thin.
He said a history of treating people well and good relationship management had been the key to getting them through this season.
"Planning for next season at this stage is about maintaining those relationships.
"But at the moment we are ploughing ahead blind."
Understanding what would happen next year was almost impossible without the certainty of the future of RSE workers coming into the country, he said.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi this week said RSE numbers in 2022 would be lower than pre-Covid.
"You've just got to cross your fingers that what you managed to do this year, you'll be able to do next year," Llewellyn said.
RSE workers made up about a quarter of his workforce this season, each with about 10 years' picking experience.
"We need RSEs back to take the pressure off the labour pool," Llewellyn said.
"They don't replace anyone. They just supplement and ease the burden.
"Development won't continue without the seasonal labour force."
Packhouses were also behind due to the labour shortage.
Delays in picking and processing might see the amount of fruit able to be sold reduced from 80 per cent to 60 per cent - that can be all your profit, he said.
Llewellyn acknowledged that Covid-19 had been disruptive for industries worldwide, but felt New Zealand's horticulture labour woes "could have been avoided".
Small growers were the ones who had really struggled this year and there would be a definite loss of owner-operators, he said.
"I think the thing that will underpin some of them will be the value of the land.
"They will sell or lease to bigger, integrated companies."
Richard Punter, New Zealand Apples and Pears chairman, shares Llewellyn's concerns - he says the impact on small growers has been "severe".
"[Small growers] don't have the same resources the large companies have. They might not be as resilient."
While 10 to 20 of the 257 growers in the industry were planning for next season and would likely make it through, he worried about others who had been "badly and terminally damaged".
Asked if smaller growers would be subsumed, he said, "I don't see how not".
The only other alternative was pulling out unviable blocks, as without ongoing maintenance the trees could spread disease to still operating orchards.
"You can't just leave them."
So is automation the answer?
T&G Global introduced eight new automated picking platforms this season.
The Italian-made platforms allow less fit or new workers to harvest around six bins per day - twice their manual average.
While many businesses were already "ramping up automation", Punter said manual labour was still needed until this could be done on a commercial scale.
"There will be automation. The technology is on its way."
Once again it would be small growers who missed out in the meantime, he said.
Infometrics economist Brad Olsen said there was not a lot that could be realistically be done to alleviate the labour shortage being experienced by the primary sector in the region.
"It's very difficult to fill those skills gaps which are emerging.
"The rude fact is there are not people coming in over the borders at the moment.
"The sector will either need to find ways it can attempt to fill its workforce numbers and do so. Or there won't be people to pick."
He said there had always been a "mismatch" when it came to filling certain roles in New Zealand, particularly in the regions.
Covid-19 had exacerbated these issues and contributed to additional pricing pressure, he said.
Despite this, fruit exports are still going incredibly well, with a 9.9 per cent increase on January last year.
"The returns have been incredibly strong in recent times.
"However, this also underscores the concern and risk if we're not able to convert all of the fruit export that we might think we've got into actual activity."