Producer Organisations retain optimism despite Brexit
Hand harvesting is still required to pick delicate fruit such as these English Morello cherries sold exclusively in Waitrose

Producer Organisations retain optimism despite Brexit

Samantha Lster
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Despite UK government guarantees that farming subsidies will be upheld until at least 2020, there is still uncertainty as to what will happen with the country’s EU-funded Producer Organisations. Not surprisingly, members who have bought into the scheme are committed to seeing its continuation.

The farming sector’s concerns that a withdrawal from the European Union (EU) would plunge it into a subsidy ‘cold bath’ have been partly assuaged with the announcement by the British treasury that funding will be made available up to 2020 that matches payments from CAP Pillar 1.

Chancellor Philip Hammond also committed to funding for structural and investment schemes signed before the Autumn Budget statement. Horticulture association British Growers expects that going forward, producer organisations will be included.

Although not specifically mentioned in the treasury announcement, the producer organisation scheme plays an important part in horticulture, and the UK has 33 registered POs covering fruit to pea farming. British Growers represents nine o fthem, including five vine pea POs.

Farmers invest into the PO scheme, and it is the ‘central’ organisation that then applies to the EU for match funding for re-investment, and decides where the money will be spent following a consultation with members. This year British Growers is investing in new harvesting equipment, something that will increasingly become important should the tightening up of migrant workers continue.

English Strawberries
English strawberries, such as these sold in Waitrose, could be more in demand with the weaker pound

British Growers’ chief executive Jack Ward says that while members are not entirely sure what the post-Brexit future holds for the schemes, they will “press very hard” for the government to ensure it continues.

“We will be holding a meeting of POs in September to discuss what we want to see happen,” he adds.

“POs are very, very important to the fresh produce industry, particularly in the supply chain. They are a way for growers to collaborate and benefit from shared resources. Rather than have 25 packhouses serving individual farmers, you can establish one packhouse dealing with 25 farmers.”

Ward says that as funding for POs comes under the Cap Pillar 1 payments, therefore he would expect it to continue.

“While the funding is small in comparison with the rest of Cap Pillar 1 payments, there is still a lot at stake,” he says.

According to Sarah Calcutt, chair of the National Fruit Show and founding partner of Partners in Produce, much of horticulture is heavily invested in the PO set up, and it’s made a huge amount of difference to the smaller growers who have better access to shared tech and can therefore achieve better economies of scale.

“The match funding has enabled a rapid move to better varieties, better harvest equipment, graders, pre-graders and storage, it has undoubtedly improved the offering to consumers,” she adds.

“There are also funds like those managed by Innovate that are making big investments in near market research to improve safety, quality and productivity.”

Calcutt adds that with the weakening pound, British-grown fresh produce will be more in demand, and that growers need to feel confident to continue investing in plantings.

Kent cherry grower Henry Bryant, who has 30 acres in Faversham, agrees that the weaker pound will potentially help farmers and growers with sales as the price of imports become less competitive.

“Now with a weaker pound that has got to help home production, our fruit becomes more viable if produce from abroad costs more,” he says.

However, Bryant is less concerned about the future of the PO system, as he left his local PO some six years ago, feeling it was of little benefit to his business. “We [growers] thought we were getting a lot of grant money through the POs, but in actual fact most of the money you get is money that’s been taken off your fruit in the first place,” he claims.

“Then there’s a lot of money wasted on administration, before you get a little bit from the EU to top up what you have already paid in.

“As for the future, we’re just as viable as before, and while we don’t know what is going to be negotiated or agreed, I cannot see us being any worse off.

“What I am concerned about is the availability of Eastern European labour – if they [the government] want the horticultural industry to survive then we need to have overseas workers because you won’t get anyone to harvest in this country. [British] workers don’t want to do the outside work or the hours.

“In saying that, necessity is the mother of invention, and if we cannot get the labour the pressure will come on to automate. In the meantime, a lot of people will go out of business as you can’t just suddenly stop producing for two years.

“I can say one thing for certain, those workers don’t just come here to go on the dole, they want better than that.”

Bryant echoes the sentiments of many growers and farmers that are reliant upon manual labour. While Bryant is confident common sense will prevail, there are reports that DEFRA is keen to push the idea of a recruitment drive of agricultural workers from inner city areas by raising awareness of the fact that people claiming unemployment benefits can take on seasonal work.

A government spokesman confirmed that under the new Universal Credit system there’s no limits to the number of hours a claimant can work a week, and the payment reduces gradually as they earn more.

While this may be suitable for people without dependants, namely young workers, director of agricultural recruitment agency Hops Labour Solutions, John Hardman, says logistically it’s not practical.

“The geographic locations of high unemployment, such as Hull, are hundreds of miles from where the work is. The thought that the current unemployed will pick up any shortfall post Brexit is truly fanciful,” he says. 

“The industry would love to employ domestic labour…. in reality there is very little appetite in the British workforce due to the physical nature of the job generally.

“Many politicians see mechanisation of crop picking being the future, [but] certainly in the short to medium term, this is a long, long way off.”

While the new funding measures are reassuring for the horticulture community then, uncertainty remains around the crucial issues that will decide whether the UK is well equipped enough to increase it’s domestic output.

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