Hawke's Bay summer fruit growers are encouraged by more students signing up for seasonal picking work, but remain "pretty sombre" ahead of a picker shortfall at harvest.
Industry body Summerfruit NZ's interim chief executive Richard Palmer said the mood was grim among the region's growers.
"Part of the challenge in Hawke's Bay of course is there's a housing shortage already," he said.
That means it will be a struggle to accommodate the New Zealanders coming in for picking from outside the region.
The horticulture and viticulture industries at large are facing a seasonal worker shortage with both working holidaymakers and Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) workers unable to come from overseas due to Covid.
Palmer said working holidaymakers typically make up 60 per cent of the summer fruit harvest workforce, with less than 20 per cent of that group still in the country with a visa to work.
He said growers were "pretty sombre".
"This is not just about our growers and their businesses. This is about New Zealand's regional economy, New Zealand's recovery from Covid."
Palmer said the country can't afford to squander an opportunity to maximise production output in an export-focused primary industry.
"The thing is, we're not asking for money from the government, we're asking for some decisions on supporting the labour need," he said.
Palmer said measures to engage the student population in harvest work have been pretty successful.
"We've got lots of students signing up pre-Christmas, our challenge now is getting the post-Christmas piece," he said.
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) partnered with Student Job Search (SJS) in order to connect students looking for work with seasonal employers over the coming months.
Camelot Fresh Fruit Company managing director Stewart Burns said it would be really good for summer fruit growers if they could engage a greater student workforce than normal.
"It's actually really heartening for growers to feel like the students are looking for that work, and hopefully it's a good partnership because it could be a continuing longer-term relationship with some students," he said.
Camelot grows and packs summer fruit in Twyford, west of Hastings.
Burns said about 20 per cent of Camelot's packhouse staff have been students for previous harvest seasons, but this year the proportion will be more like 40 per cent.
He said they are feeling good about being able to fill the labour gap caused by the absence of working holidaymakers for 2020.
"We've almost filled our packhouse roles for the season, still got a few more roles to fill in the orchard," Burns said.
The need is relatively urgent, with picking starting in the next two or three weeks as the harvest season, which runs from December through February, approaches.
SJS chief executive Suzanne Boyd said her organisation was thrilled to be able to work with MPI to support one of our biggest industries through a challenging time.
"SJS is delighted to foster real-world connections between employers and students through this partnership, and we look forward to it flourishing over the coming months," Boyd said.
She said it would be difficult to predict exact numbers, but SJS does expect an increase in students taking up picking roles this summer, especially since industries where students tend to dominate (like hospitality and tourism) may have seen a decrease in job vacancies because of Covid.