Central Otago Labour Market Governance Group chairman Stephen Jeffery said there could be a shortfall of 4000 to 5000 workers at the height of the season.
The group sent an urgent report to the Government last week to raise the alarm about labour market issues facing the industry.
It had hoped tourists on working holiday visas and Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers would be able to return but that was becoming unlikely given the increase of Covid-19 cases, Mr Jeffery said. The horticulture season starts in September and the demand for labour would peak in December and January during the cherry crop season, he said.
In previous seasons up to 64% of roles were filled by those holding working holiday visas.
A further 13% were filled by workers on the RSE scheme. Mr Jeffery did not know if an increasing number of New Zealanders seeking work due to the economic effects of Covid-19 would cover the shortfall, he said.
‘‘If you think back to what happened with the  global financial crisis it was very difficult to attract Kiwis to come and work in the horticultural industry.’’
Central Otago District Council economic development manager Nick Lanham worked on the Otago labour market Covid-19 overview that has been presented to the Government.
A key request was being able to alter visa conditions for migrant workers who were still in the country.
‘‘There are a lot of people in New Zealand here on work visas who would like to stay here and continue working,’’ Mr Lanham said.
But some of those workers were bound to a single employer because of the type of visa they came in on and others had a time limit on how long they could continue to work in New Zealand, he said.
If visa restrictions were loosened ‘‘that could go some way to alleviating some of the shortages we are going to face’’.
Summerfruit New Zealand board chairman Tim Jones said the industry body faced challenges with labour and exporting.
Summerfruit represents nearly 300 apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach and plum growers across the country.
The lack of labour for the coming season, ‘‘and potentially longer with our border being shut’’, was a key issue.
‘‘Obviously we are going to have to employ a lot more Kiwis,’’ Mr Jones said.
Fruit exported to overseas markets was normally transported on passenger aircraft.
With few passenger flights operating, the industry body was exploring other options, including chartering flights, Mr Jones said.
‘‘When it comes to logistics no stone is being left unturned to find a solution to get our fruit to the market.’’
Central Otago Mayor Tim Cadogan said overseas workers on the RSE scheme were a fundamentally important part of the industry.
Not having them as well as backpackers and overseas holidaymakers was ‘‘putting some real pressure on the industry’’, Mr Cadogan said.
The latest Covid-19 outbreak was causing greater concern about the chances of overseas workers being able to come back for the season.