Labour shortages have already started to hit the UK farm sector fuelling fears the 2017 season could be disaster for growers, with crops being left to ’rot in the field’.
John Hardman, director of horticultural and agricultural recruitment specialist HOPS which supplies about 12,000 EU workers to UK farms each year, said he had been unable to fulfil labour orders for some growers and expected the situation would only get worse as the UK headed for Brexit.
He said: “This occurred last year and we anticipated it happening again this season with added magnitude, and it has.
“We are struggling desperately to find workers, especially for farms in Scotland, where the perception is that conditions are bleak and the work is hard. Workers simply do not want to go.”
Mr Hardman said while the company had presented directly to workers in Bulgaria, Romania and Poland – countries which the UK has traditionally relied upon for low and medium skilled agricultural workers – they were opting for ‘easier’ work in hospitality and construction where they could earn the same amount of money or more.
“People who were once desperate for the money when these countries joined the EU are now finding they can do other things and agriculture is not as attractive,” he added.
“We are going to have this issue Brexit or no Brexit but of course Brexit has exacerbated it.
“The UK is being seen by these countries as unfriendly and not welcoming.”
Chris Chinn, a partner at Cobrey Farms which grows 810 hectares (2,000 acres) of asparagus and employs about 1,000 seasonal workers in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, said UK agriculture was being caught in the ‘migration crossfire’.
“The Government’s clear message is that we do not need EU labour, the borders will close in March 2019 and there will be no seasonal agricultural workers scheme,” said Mr Chinn, who recently fed into a Government select committee on access to EU labour.
“That shortage will wipe out the labour intensive horticulture sector in this country.
“We will be recruiting in October 2018 for the 2019 season so we need to resolve this situation pretty quickly. It is already having a dramatic impact.”
Mr Hardman added: “Crops such as strawberries are time sensitive and have to be picked by hand so the pressure is really on and this will have a knock-on-effect on stone fruit, top fruit and winter veg. While we await a workable solution crops will rot in the field.”
Their concerns chimed with a CLA report which found 44 per cent of members had experienced a reduction in the availability of migrant labour over the past year.
CLA senior economics adviser Dr Charles Trotman said: “To support the already acute shortage of labour a new seasonal agricultural workers scheme must be introduced immediately, not after the UK has left the EU and the Government must also confirm the status of EU migrant workers in sectors such as food processing, horticulture and tourism already resident in the UK.”