No-deal Brexit could be catastrophic for UK fruit farming
The National Farmers' Union says in 2017 there was a 12.5% shortfall of seasonal workers to pick soft fruit, which meant some produce was left to rot in the fields. The FT's Daniel Garrahan reports on why the industry is worried things could get worse.
Filmed by Petros Gioumpasis. Produced by Daniel Garrahan
It's soft fruit picking season in southeast England. Seasonal workers have long flocked to the UK from Romania and Bulgaria to pick strawberries, until now. The National Farmers Union says that in 2017 there was a 12 and 1/2 per cent shortfall in the number of seasonal workers that UK farmers rely on to pick their fruits. That led to some valuable produce being left to rot in the fields in some farms. And there are growing fears in the industry that things could get worse.
Last year in September, that shortfall figure was 29%. One third of the labour that we needed on soft fruit and apple farms wasn't here. That's heading towards a catastrophe if that number grows this year. If you can't pick the crop, you can't sell it. It's as simple as that.
Some recruiters blame the decline in migrant labour on the UK'S Brexit referendum.
We were the number one place for Romanians, Bulgarians, and certainly a percentage of Polish to come and work. As we stand at the moment, we're probably about fourth in Europe for attractiveness, Germany being number one. People thought that we were possibly racist, xenophobic, unwelcoming. We're recruiting all the way through the year, whereas before we would literally have people queuing out of the door.
The labour shortages have already led to fruit rotting in some Scottish farms this year, while farmers in southern England are having to pay higher salaries to entice pickers. Some Romanian workers have been returning to pick fruit at this farm in Kent every summer for more than a decade. They say it's a great place to work, but they worry they might have to stop coming back.
A lot of people, Romanian, they are scared about this Brexit. My wife, she is in Romania with my son. But maybe next year, she'll come back here with me, if it's possible. It depends what rules they put, the Brexit.
The UK used to have a seasonal agricultural workers' scheme which let Romanians and Bulgarians work in UK farms for up to six months. It was scrapped in 2013 after people from those countries were granted access to work anywhere within the EU. Farmers are desperate for the scheme to be reinstated so they can continue to recruit foreign workers post-Brexit.
Robert Pascal has been a farmer here for more than 30 years. And he doesn't regret his decision to leave the European Union.
I don't think it is a Brexit issue. What Brexit has done is reduce the value of the pound, which means we have to pay more to get the job done. The reason that they're not coming is not simply because they're concerned that they won't be able to come in the future.
What does worry me is the intransigence on the part of the government. We need a seasonal and cultural workers' scheme as quickly as possible. It's too late for 2019, but 2020 could be put in train now.
The idea that British workers or increased automation could fill the gap if EU freedom of movement is ended has been dismissed by the industry.
There are lots of other job opportunities available to British workers. We have the lowest unemployment rate for decades now. So it's not as if we have hordes of unemployed people that we could motivate or encourage into the sector.
Robotics are years and years away. This will be soft fruit armageddon. 99% of the people that are out there picking today are of eastern European descent. It's just absolutely unthinkable that we crash out without a deal. And for March next year, we have no labour force.
The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs was unable to appear in this video. But a government spokesperson said: " "We're working hard to ensure the labour needs of the agriculture sector are met once we leave the EU. We're determined to get the best deal for the UK in our EU negotiations, not least for our food and farming industry which is a key part of our success."
The NFU says a no-deal Brexit would be armageddon for UK farming. For farmers on both sides of the Brexit debate, the message is clear, if you want to continue to see British soft fruits on our supermarket shelves, continued access to migrant labour is crucial.