Panic as pro­duce left to rot in pick­ers shortage

Soft fruit: Fear over im­pact of stress on farm­ers’ health amid huge de­mand

The Press and Journal (Moray) - - FARMING - BY NANCY NICOL­SON

At least three ma­jor soft fruit grow­ers in An­gus and Perthshire saw pro­duce go to waste on bushes last week as this year’s shortage of good sea­sonal work­ers be­gan to bite.

The in­dus­try is work­ing flat out to cope with bumper crops of rapidly ripen­ing fruit and un­prece­dented de­mand from re­tail­ers but, ac­cord­ing to lead­ing sup­pli­ers An­gus Soft Fruits, some pro­duc­ers are now short of up to 40-50 pick­ers and un­able to cope with the bumper har­vest.

Meg Mar­shall, of Peter Mar­shall Fruit at Alyth, revealed the com­pany had to leave 15 tonnes of straw­ber­ries and five tonnes of rasp­ber­ries to rot in the fields last week be­cause of a com­bi­na­tion of too few pick­ers and an un­usu­ally long pe­riod of sun­shine which meant the fruit ripened quickly.

“The fruit is ripen­ing so fast, by the time the pick­ers get to the end of a drill they need to start all over again,” she said.

“Lots of grow­ers are in this sit­u­a­tion – we’re all short and pan­ick­ing. We need to be able to em­ploy work­ers from the Ukraine and Morocco and even Thai­land, like other EU coun­tries do.”

An­gus Soft Fruits gen­eral man­ager Wil­liam Hous­ton said most pro­duc­ers were “just about” cop­ing, but fields weren’t get­ting a last pick done be­cause work­ers are so tight. He added: “The other big is­sue is that the stan­dard of work­ers from Eastern Europe isn’t as good as it used to be.

“If we had the same stan­dard as even two years ago they’d all be relishing the busy­ness, work­ing their guts out pick­ing huge vol­umes of fruit and ev­ery­one would be happy.”

Mr Hous­ton was con­cerned about the lev­els of stress in the in­dus­try, which he said re­minded him of work­ing with live­stock farm­ers dur­ing the foot-and-mouth out­break. He said: “We are all aware of farmer sui­cides and I’m not say­ing we’re nec­es­sar­ily at the same level here, but peo­ple are go­ing quiet and the stresses are pretty enor­mous.”

NFU Scot­land’s hor­ti­cul­ture com­mit­tee chair­man James Porter revealed the ap­peal for a sea­sonal agri­cul­tural work­ers scheme had now gone all the way to the prime min­is­ter but she had “put the brakes” on such a scheme go­ing for­ward.

“We don’t know where to go next with the ar­gu­ment. Ev­ery­one else agrees it’s nec­es­sary but it’s all about tim­ing, and the big­gest dan­ger will be when it gets to au­tumn the work­ers who are here will have had enough and be ready to go home.

“That’s when we ex­pect the sit­u­a­tion to be­come re­ally acute with vegetable crops.”

Aldi is buy­ing more than 90 tonnes of “wonky” Scot­tish straw­ber­ries to re­duce food waste and sup­port lo­cal pro­duc­ers.

HAR­VEST: Fruit is ripen­ing very quickly in the sun­shine as the in­dus­try strug­gles with a shortage of work­ers

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