The Prince of Wales has urged workers to join the “unglamorous but vital” effort to harvest fruit and vegetables – as ministers revealed that only a third of the usual migrant workforce is currently in the country.

Prince Charles recorded a video message to support the government’s Pick for Britain initiative, aiming to ensure crops are not left to rot in the ground while the annual influx of seasonal workers – usually relied on by growers across East Anglia – are restricted from travelling from eastern Europe during the coronavirus lockdown.

He likened the project to the Women’s Land Army, which helped boost Britain’s food production during the Second World War.

In the video, recorded in the vegetable garden of his Scottish home, the heir to the throne says: “Food does not happen by magic, it all begins with our remarkable farmers and growers.

“If the last few weeks have proved anything, it is that food is precious and valued, and it cannot be taken for granted.

“This is why that great movement of the Second World War – the Land Army – is being rediscovered in the newly created ‘Pick For Britain’ campaign.

“In the coming months, many thousands of people will be needed to bring in the crops. It will be hard graft but is hugely important if we are to avoid the growing crops going to waste.

“Harvesting runs until the early autumn and people are needed who are genuinely going to commit. The phrase I have often heard is ‘pickers who are stickers’.

“I do not doubt that the work will be unglamorous and, at times, challenging. But it is of the utmost importance and, at the height of this global pandemic, you will be making a vital contribution to the national effort.

“So, I can only urge you to Pick For Britain.”

The government’s initiative follows concerns of a shortage in seasonal workers coming to the UK from eastern Europe due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

Growers in East Anglia have so far reported an encouraging response to the campaign, with major fruit growers Place UK at Tunstead, near Wroxham, taking on a new member of staff just to manage applications after being inundated with hundreds of job-seekers. Meanwhile, Fenland-based salad and vegetable growers G’s Group recently chartered a flight to bring in experienced Romanian pickers to help train the firm’s new British recruits.

A Pick For Britain website, supported by the industry, has been launched by the Defra and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, to help bring those seeking work and farmers together.

Peak periods for harvesting produce run from June to the autumn and it is hoped that people from students to laid-off hospitality workers will take the opportunity.

At today’s daily government coronavirus briefing, environment secretary George Eustice said only “around a third” of migrant workers normally expected for the harvest are currently in the country.

He said this means Britons will be required to “lend a hand” in bringing in this summer’s fruit and vegetables.

“We believe that those furloughed who may want to lend a hand or play their part, or supplement their income with an additional job, if they do feel that way I would urge them to visit that website [Pick for Britain] and look at the opportunities there,” he said.