In the latest of our round-table debates on farming after Brexit, Abi Kay spoke to growers and horticulture specialists to discuss the future of the sector when the UK leaves the EU.
Import substitution, a new crop protection regime and the possibility of benefiting from any future support scheme were all tipped as potential opportunities for horticulture, but the benefits were overshadowed by the threat of losing access to a competent workforce post-Brexit.
With restrictions on immigration central to the campaign to leave the EU and a domestic workforce which is seemingly unable or unwilling to plug the gap, growers were keen to emphasise the continued need for migrant labour.
AC: I think it is a challenge and an opportunity. It is a massive regulatory challenge, but the biggest challenge is labour. I would argue there is an opportunity in there for import substitution, rather than exports for our sector.
SC: The talk has been about opportunity, but clearly there is lots of discussion about labour. You have a lot of companies pitching robotic solutions for labour issues, but we are a long way from this being a solution.
GP: Labour is the biggest challenge for me. Take migrant labour out of horticulture and you might as well just say it is closed.
LS: About 80-85 per cent of our employees are European, so obviously we are concerned about access to labour.
AC: We are now having to compete for people who do not think they can come here. A lot of eastern Europe thinks the door is already closed, and those who understand the door is not closed are not sure about coming. The devaluation of sterling means we are competing with Germany, Holland and France and actually we are probably going to end up having to pay more.
SC: I did a piece of work for a large grower where we were looking to recruit local labour, paying above what is now National Living Wage. We did a massive campaign across local radio and job centres and we only managed to get 14 people who were employable. Only four of those turned up and only two lasted a week.
LS: We have worked with the Department for Work and Pensions and job centres and, from 100 candidates we have taken 20 on a course. Two turned up and both left at lunchtime.
SC: It is expensive to live in rural areas too. Most of my growers are in Kent and Hampshire. Those are areas where commuters live, so it is not even just talking about people who do not want to do it, but actually you cannot afford to live in a rural area and be a manual labourer.
LS: We are seeing Romanians going to Germany now because of the exchange rate and because we are having battles in trying to offer good standards for on-site nursery workers. The cost of rent is prohibitive.
AC: The other thing is UK unemployment is low. UK people are not there looking for these jobs, but also in Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, which to an extent is still relevant. All those countries now have low unemployment.
GP: Market access is massive. We buy and sell out of Europe every day and we have got to keep the simplicity there.
Selling further afield is a nice story but the reality is 75 per cent of what we export goes to the EU so we are a long way from making it a future for our business.
You have only to look at Asia. They are investing heavily in Australia and New Zealand. They are not stupid; they see they can feed themselves from a lot closer to home than from the UK.
SC: I have had meetings today with retailers in Dubai, so there is potential, but it is the mechanism to get it there and also the intrinsic value of produce. We are all looking at returns, so it is about finding opportunities which are going to yield better than our home market and this is actually proving quite hard.
LS: The Lea Valley is in the opposite position. We cannot grow enough produce to fill our orders so we need to expand.
SC: We also need to have a campaign about improving people’s perceptions of the value of produce. At the moment people think fresh fruit and vegetables are the cheapest part of their weekly shop. We are in a position now where a really large proportion of the industry is not sustainable.
AC: My reading of the big four retailers is they want more British produce because their biggest issue with Brexit is exchange rate volatility and they want to mitigate this.
With fresh produce, unless you process it, exporting into markets outside the EU is unrealistic from a storage and travel point of view. The biggest opportunity for us is to grow more so supermarkets import less – a win-win for growers and retailers.
GP: You have to be hopeful, otherwise we would not be sat here today doing this. We have a great opportunity to grow, particularly as people are demanding British food. We just need Government to give us the policies to be able to do it.
LS: As long as access to labour, exchange rates and shrinking margins are dealt with, then yes.
AC: We have not touched on crop protection. Legislation on crop protection cannot simply come back here. On the one hand this is quite scary, as we could find ourselves without a proper regulatory framework but, rather than being negative about it, I would prefer to look on it as an opportunity to change something which is not working well.
GP: I would like to think it could but it has to put horticulture a lot higher on the agenda.
AC: Sadly, the Government prioritises the industries it is going to protect in trade negotiations. It is not just Defra which needs to prioritise agriculture, it is the Department for International Trade. At the moment, they are not prioritising agriculture and they need to.
LS: One concern with fresh produce is we could be undercut from other areas of the world which do not have the same food security standards we do, because we are not a priority in negotiations.
GP: Absolutely. One of the arguments horticulture has always had is it does not get much of a slice of the cake in terms of area payments, compared with normal arable farming. We would like to see a slice which is relative to what we produce and relative to our GDP, as opposed to arable getting quite a lot and horticulture getting next to nothing.
AC: I would like to see investment on the basis of return, rather than on the basis of land area. Horticulture represents only 3 per cent of land in the UK, but it produces about 20 per cent the farmgate value.
LS: We do not receive any CAP payments at all as it is based on acreage. In the future, we would like to see capital investment grants from Government to help growers expand and produce more.
SC: I do struggle with support as we have issues enough as it is in horticulture. It is not about area, but strategic return projects, so a project to invest in improving quality or productivity, reduction of labour needs and all those sorts of elements could have a clearly demonstrated return.
It is about improving the situation as opposed to giving subsidy because this is what we have always done. Having a lot of businesses which are dependent is really unhealthy.