The NFU labelled the findings of its End of Season Horticultural survey ‘very worrying for the future of the horticulture industry’.
It believes that by opening a scheme to agricultural students from all over the world, the UK could attract the young people it so desperately needs.
NFU president Meurig Raymond said: “Horticulture contributes £3 billion to the UK’s economy and employs around 37,000 people in England alone. However, a further 40,819 seasonal workers are needed every year in England to help grow, harvest and pack the produce.
“Harvest seasons with insufficient seasonal labour lead to British crops remaining unpicked, businesses facing massive losses and retailers being forced to fill shelves with imported produce.
“Putting a new student scheme in place will attract young people who will bring skills that can help increase productivity in the UK. This will help avoid labour shortages and the potential consequences of higher food prices, increased imports and loss of full time jobs that seasonal work supports.”
The union predicted growers would struggle to recruit an adequate supply of workers when the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Scheme (SAWS) ended in 2013, as migrant workers moved into other sectors.
The survey revealed the fruit sector has been worst affected, with 43 per cent of respondents experiencing problems last year.
The results collated from 289 businesses employing 13,749 seasonal workers, showed growers were anticipating these difficulties to intensify over time, with labour becoming more expensive and harder to find.
More than half of respondents 53 per cent expect an increase in labour costs this year, with this proportion rising to 84 per cent by 2018.
In addition, 66 per cent of respondents envisaged reductions in labour availability by 2018, with 43 per cent believing this would result in their business experiencing labour shortages.