It’s been the case in Britain for quite some time – UK workers don’t seem to want to pick fruit. Whether it’s the myth of being low-paid, the notion of unskilled labour or a whole host of factors – UK growers have relied on a seasonal migrant workforce for decades. PBUK examines one English soft fruit farm which has a rich history welcoming workers from all over the world for the last 70 years.
Fruit picking labour shortages amongst Britain’s farms may be widespread, but one soft fruit grower is “simply getting on with it” as strawberry production reaches its peak.
Amid a barrage of headlines proclaiming mass shortages on UK farms – something which has been getting worse since last year’s referendum announcing Britain’s exit from the EU – Wilkin & Son Ltd is in the middle of a busy strawberry harvest.
However this year, numbers of fruit pickers are down by around 20%. It’s a similar picture across many farms in the country.
“Harvest for strawberries is in full swing and we are just over the peak of production and it’s looking very good indeed with good quality and taste,” Sally Carpenter, spokesperson for the farm, tells PBUK.
“Usually we source labour from some UK pickers, if they want to, and we also obviously source from overseas, mainly from Bulgaria and Romania.
“We have fewer than we would have liked, we would have liked a few more people perhaps another 20 or 30 but we have made it work. Everyone has got on with it.”
Harvesting soft fruit quickly has always required an influx of pickers at the Essex-based farm, and over the years, seasonal workers have come in from all over the world.
“There has been an international student camp on the farm at Wilkin & Sons for over 65 years; where traditionally students from all parts of the world lived and worked together picking strawberries and other fruit,” Chris Newenham joint managing director tells PBUK.
“Today the international farm camp provides modern facilities with a large social hall, laundry room, drying room and modern mobile accommodation units as well as a popular football pitch. The camp is within walking distance to the village shops.”
In recent years most seasonal workers have been from eastern Europe, but there are fewer than previous years, dampened by uncertainty of Brexit and exacerbated by a weak pound.
The worst case scenario for the UK industry would be to cut production because of staff shortages – something that industry professionals have been concerned about for a while.
As the UK is supposedly moving into more home production, this would go against a policy of self sufficiency and would lead to more imports, say many in the industry.
And a lack of clarity over Brexit continues to cause concern.
“In terms of Brexit, the problem is no one quite knows what will happen as we go through the negotiations and uncertainty is not good for anyone,” adds Carpenter.
“We hope that eventually we will come out with some sort of scheme such as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) that we used to have, something similar to that seems to be the answer to the problem at the moment.
“We’ve had people from overseas coming to work here for about 70 years. Throughout the years people have been coming here from all over the world. At one time people came from France, another time it was Germany, then Belgium, Scandinavia as well as people from Siberia and Africa.”
Newly appointed Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove is under pressure to reassure growers that there will be clarity on how farms will access a reliable and competent workforce, now and post-Brexit.
“A lack of clarity regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU and a weakened sterling has contributed to the reduction in workers on farm now being reported by labour providers who source seasonal workers,” says National Farmers’ Union (NFU) horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper.
“Farmers and growers need to know how the Government will deal with the need from industries that rely on seasonal workers and the NFU is calling for reassurance farmers will be able to source a reliable and competent workforce both now and in the future.
“Without that, this trend is likely to continue and at this stage in the season any further tightening in the workforce will hit hard on farms.”
A recent NFU survey shows a 17% drop in the number of seasonal workers coming to work on UK farms, which left more than 1,500 unfilled vacancies on British farms in May alone, claims the NFU.
Covering January to May this year, the survey reveals the number of labour providers unable to meet the requirements of the farms they supplied rose four-fold.
And the proportion of returnees, which form “a sizeable and dependable source of workers” has significantly dropped in the first five months of 2017, from 65% to 33%, according to the survey.
“Returnees are absolutely vital. Their past experience and technical ability makes them so valuable and losing them is a big concern,” adds Capper.