Fears for har­vest over short­age of labour

The Guardian - - Front Page - Steven Mor­ris and Lisa O’Car­roll

Up to 10,000 peo­ple have ex­pressed an in­ter­est in join­ing a ‘land army’, but farm­ers fear the num­bers will not be enough to en­sure crops are all picked. Some 90% of seaonal work­ers usu­ally come from the EU, but Brexit and Covid-19 mean many will stay away.

The farm­ing in­dus­try says it faces a huge short­fall of work­ers to har­vest fruit and veg­eta­bles even though many thou­sands of peo­ple have ex­pressed an in­ter­est in join­ing a new “land army”.

At least 10,000 peo­ple, from former service per­son­nel to re­tirees and horse rac­ing staff, have signed up for a Feed the Na­tion cam­paign run by three big UK labour providers.

An­other big pro­ducer said it had re­ceived a stream of ap­pli­ca­tions from a wide cross-sec­tion of peo­ple, in­clud­ing high-fly­ing univer­sity grad­u­ates, but was still deeply con­cerned about fill­ing its 2,500 va­can­cies.

With the first big crop, as­para­gus, nor­mally ready for har­vest next month, farm­ers and pro­duc­ers are wor­ried that the loss of sea­sonal work­ers, who nor­mally come in from the EU will mean some pro­duce may be left in the fields.

Vol­un­teer helpers might be able to lend a hand on smaller farms, but large pro­duc­ers want paid staff whom they can train and rely on to stay.

Some farms have come up with imag­i­na­tive schemes such as al­low­ing peo­ple to pick pro­duce, take home what they want and “sell” to the farm what they do not want, but such ideas can have only a lim­ited im­pact.

Stephanie Mau­rel, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the char­ity Con­cor­dia, which is work­ing with the labour providers HOPS and Fruit­ful on the Feed the Na­tion scheme, said 10,000 peo­ple had signed up to work at more than 500 farms so far.

Al­most 90% are Bri­tish and less than a third have pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence in agri­cul­ture. Half said Covid-19 had af­fected their jobs.

Mau­rel said 90,000 jobs, usu­ally cov­ered by 60,000 peo­ple work­ing across the sea­son, needed to be filled. “We’re wor­ried that there’s go­ing to be a short­fall,” she said. Ninety per cent of sea­sonal work­ers usu­ally come from the EU, but the Covid-19 cri­sis on top of Brexit means most will stay away.

G’s Grow­ers, a large in­de­pen­dent pro­ducer or­gan­i­sa­tion, ur­gently needs to re­cruit thou­sands of both in­door and out­door staff. Bev­erly Dixon, the group’s hu­man re­sources man­ager, said it had seen a huge re­sponse so far to do­mes­tic re­cruit­ment but needed many more to ap­ply.

G’s is one of the coun­try’s big­gest salad grow­ers, pro­duc­ing 250m packs of let­tuces and cel­ery a year. “Be­cause of coro­n­avirus we have found our­selves with 2,500 va­can­cies. We start har­vest on 22 April and the har­vest lasts un­til Oc­to­ber,” said Dixon.

“Ev­ery­body is wor­ried we don’t have food on our shelves. We are plant­ing that food now, but we don’t have the pick­ers. If we don’t get the pick­ers the food will re­main in the ground.

“At this time of na­tional cri­sis, it has never been more im­por­tant to keep the sup­ply chain mov­ing. We’d like peo­ple to get be­hind the cause and come and work for us.”

Many con­sider har­vest­ing back­break­ing and dif­fi­cult, but Dixon said the jobs on of­fer ranged from trac­tor driv­ers and “fun out­door work” to in­door posts for en­gi­neers pay­ing about £400 a week.

Nick Mars­den, the chair­man of the in­dus­try body Bri­tish Sum­mer Fruits, said: “The num­bers of avail­able jobs are large and var­ied. Farm­ers are hop­ing to tar­get stu­dents, but also those laid off in the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor.”

Pick­ing straw­ber­ries or rasp­ber­ries pays be­tween £10 and £11 an hour, but with pro­duc­tiv­ity bonuses most earn £14 an hour, he said.

“It is a crit­i­cal time to have a healthy diet and 90% of berries on su­per­mar­ket shelves in the sea­son are Bri­tish. If we don’t get the pick­ers it will be a shame not just for the farm­ers but for the con­sumer,” he said.

Andy Allen of Port­wood Farm in Nor­folk said: “Due to Euro­pean work­ers not be­ing able to make their way to the farm this year be­cause of closed bor­ders and can­celled flights, we have been short on the 130 work­ers we need to pick and pack our as­para­gus.

“This year our job as farm­ers is purely about feed­ing the na­tion. There’s no money to be made,” he said.

The Land­work­ers’ Al­liance, a union rep­re­sent­ing more than 1,000 small and medium-scale farm­ers, has writ­ten to the govern­ment call­ing for a £9m pack­age of sup­port to help pro­tect lo­cal food sup­ply and sup­port a paid “land army”.

Vicki Hird, the farm cam­paign co­or­di­na­tor for the Sus­tain Al­liance, said: “A na­tion that fails its farm­ers and its en­vi­ron­ment and its health is a failing na­tion. There is no ex­cuse. The govern­ment must re­spond.”


▼ Plant­ing of ice­berg let­tuces gets un­der way in Tar­leton, Lan­cashire, usu­ally a big em­ployer of EU work­ers

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