Labour shortages in horticulture could lead to loss of product, significant increases in the price in the local market, and the inability to cash in on New Zealand's near Covid-free status following inquiry from North American outlets.
Strawberry Fields Ltd runs its commercial production at Hautapu near Cambridge and a pick-your-own at Whatawhata, 10 minutes west of Hamilton.
Owner Darien McFadden said while strawberries could be had through to Easter, the peak of his season was roughly two weeks over the Christmas with a 'shoulder' of several weeks either side where the bulk of the crop came in.
Overall he required 150 staff during the seasons of which he had 30 regulars returning.
"I have a core crew of about 20 people but this quadruples over the core of the season. At this time of year
we're getting 1 tonne of fruit a day but we can get to 12 tonnes a day during the peak. That means we need four times as many staff to harvest.
"Traditionally these have come from off-shore. We try to get Kiwis through Facebook, Winz and word of mouth and do a lot of training.
"It is difficult to get New Zealanders over the peak period as many don't want to work over the Christmas period. But the Government has put a cap on the RSE workers [Pacific Islanders working in New Zealand under the Register Seasonal Employer scheme] at 14,000 and because of Covid they're not available.
"If growers of strawberries and asparagus can't get the labour they're going to have to walk away from blocks of produce and manage what they can with what they have.''
Another looming problem was export and airfreight.
McFadden said strawberries had a short shelf-life and are picked 'white' or unripe and exported by airfreight - usually on passenger flights - to arrive at their destination in a saleable condition.
The Covid pandemic has reduced international air travel to a trickle of its former self. As a result finding space on aircraft for horticultural exports had become difficult and expensive.
"Rates for air freighted strawberries going to market in South East Asia have tripled. It used to cost about $1.40 a kilo but now it's around $3.80 a kilo.''
McFadden, who is also the Waikato and Bay of Plenty representative for sector body Strawberry Growers New Zealand, said a market was going begging in the northern hemisphere as Kiwi strawberry exporters were receiving inquiry from the US and Canada due to this country's relative Covid-free status.
"Walmart has specifically asked for New Zealand strawberries. They can get product a lot cheaper from Mexico and Florida but they want New Zealand product because we are seen as Covid free.''
Strawberry Growers New Zealand executive manager Mick Ahern said about 85 per cent of New Zealand strawberry production comes from the Auckland and Waikato regions of which about 10 per cent goes to export.
"In strawberries there's a lot of smaller operators who seem to battle through. It's the medium and larger producers in the Waikato and Auckland area who are not finding things easy.
"The RSE workers are the core of their workforce. Often experienced people who return season after season. The larger operators are getting anxious.
"What we really need is more New Zealanders to pick and to buy an extra couple of punnets.''
Strawberries are a relatively small part of Kiwi horticulture and strenuous efforts are under way by industry representative body Horticulture New Zealand to improve the supply of labour according to HortNZ chief executive Mike Chapman.
Chapman said numbers needed in any industry depended on what, where and when but could be estimated between 5000 and 15,000 nationally.
Following the election HortNZ was working with the Government and sectors covering summer fruit, apples and kiwifruit in an effort to come up with a plan that would allow RSE workers from Covid-free Pacific Islands into New Zealand as soon as possible, he said.