Northland kiwifruit growers are bracing for an "extra challenging" harvest due to potential labour shortages combined with a record number of crops.
The 2021 season is forecast to be another record-breaking year with more kiwifruit produced than ever before, overtaking last year's whopping 157 million trays of Green and Gold across the country.
With few backpackers and recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers left due to Covid-19 border restrictions, the government has launched a campaign to recruit thousands of people into seasonal harvest and post-harvest roles.
NZ Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nikki Johnson said 23,000 workers were needed for the harvest across the county, including 1100 in Northland.
But it was too early to tell if there would be labour shortages as the season had just started, she said.
"As we progress into the full packing stage in April, then we'll know if we have enough people.
"It's always a challenge to find people, and this year is more challenging than it would normally be.
"We've got less than half the RSEs than we normally would have, and less backpackers as well.
"But we're focusing really hard on making sure they [potential workers] know the opportunities in kiwifruit are there, and how to go about getting a job."
Last season the kiwifruit industry contributed $76m to the Northland economy, which was made up of a $55m Kerikeri contribution and $21m from Whangārei.
The picking season runs from March until June, with the peak starting mid-to-end April. The Gold variety is usually picked first, followed by Green kiwifruit.
The Ministry for Primary Industries has launched an advertising campaign called Opportunity Grows Here to get New Zealanders involved in this season's harvest.
Jobs are mainly in the Bay of Plenty, but are also in Hawke's Bay, Poverty Bay, Auckland, Northland, Tasman and South Waikato.
Kerikeri Fruitgrowers Association chairman Felix Scheibmair said the feeling among growers is "generally positive" at the moment.
However, "there is a definite shortage of skilled labour in Northland and the whole country", he said.
"The change in the RSE system has impacted on things and there are less backpackers ... there's been a big push to get locals into work which is happening but it still means there will be a gap.
"Right now, at the start of the harvest, it's reasonably slow so things are okay.
"Once we get into the real thick of it then it's likely there will be some significant labour issues."
Last November the government announced 2000 seasonal workers from the Pacific could enter New Zealand between January and March to help with the summer harvest in the horticulture and wine growing sectors.
Of those, only 30 to 40 workers are believed to be in Northland.
Seeka Kerikeri regional manager Kevin Gordon said he has 25 RSEs in the orchard this year who have stayed on.
Due to the low numbers and missing backpackers, the company, in conjunction with Ngāti Hine and the Ministry of Social Development, put together training schemes pre-season to get the long-term unemployed working.
About 60-70 people went through the scheme and of those 30-40 per cent were employed.
"We now have 130 per cent capacity of employment," Gordon said.
"We understand we have a bit of churn [people not showing up] so that's why we've got the extra capacity.
"The good ones will stay and the bad ones will go. That's that nature of the beast when it comes to seasonal work."
Almost all packhouses have told NZ Kiwifruit Growers they will be paying at least the living wage of $22.10 per hour.
Kiwifruit picking is expected to top that, with an average of $24 per hour paid last year when the minimum wage was $18.90 an hour.
Johnson said they were thrilled to have MPI's support.
"They are creating some excellent initiatives to get out the messages around kiwifruit work opportunities to those seeking employment".
MPI spokesman Cheyne Gillooly said people with a wide range of skills are welcome, including picking, packing and office work.
"There's also flexibility in the hours for those who want to work part-time or weekends only.
"There is a diverse range of careers on offer, so we're also hoping people who may have not previously considered a job in the sector will give it a go."
Scheibmair said though hard work, good job opportunities were available.
"Picking is physically harder than some other jobs, but at the same time it can be quite rewarding.
"You can make a good amount of money in that time. Generally, those growers that look after their staff retain them."