British fruit farmers have warned the future of their sector is at risk because they cannot find enough seasonal workers to pick their produce. However, Farmers still see Brexit as an opportunity to adopt policies that would make the country more food self-efficient.
On top of labour shortages, uncertainty over the UK’s future relations with the EU is also discouraging farmers from making investments, industry leaders have said.
According to the National Union of Farmers (NFU) the number of seasonal workers from EU countries has dropped by 17% this year, leaving thousands of jobs unfilled. The weak pound and changing perceptions of the UK as a destination for migrant workers following the Brexit vote are among the reasons for the decline.
Every year, British farms employ around 80,000 fruit pickers, many of whom are come from the EU’s eastern member states. The fruit industry finds it hard to attract British labourers because the jobs are poorly paid and the farms are often in areas of sparse population, such as East Anglia, or areas of low unemployment, such as the South East.
Just 14 of the 13,400 fruit pickers recruited in the first five months of 2017 were British, according to the NFU.
Fruit could be left to rot in the fields as recruitment difficulties bite. Laurence Olins, the chairman of soft fruits industry body British Summer Fruits (BSF), told The National that consumers could end up paying 50% more for their fruit as a result.
“It is inconceivable that people who voted to leave the European Union wanted to destroy an iconic and incredibly competitive British horticulture industry,” said Olins. “But if we cannot ensure access to the seasonal workers needed to produce soft fruit in Britain that will be an unintended consequence of Brexit – along with soaring prices, an increased reliance on imports and the environmental impact of additional food miles.”
Despite the practical difficulties arising from the Brexit vote, British farmers still see a window of opportunity for the future.
In a statement, NFU President Meurig Raymond urged the government to turn to agriculture and particularly, focus on the “nation’s ability to produce food”.
“We are calling on the government to deliver policies that will ensure that Britain retains its ability to be more self-sufficient, support home-grown food and ensure that we have profitable, productive and progressive farm businesses for the future,” he said.
Referring to NFU data, he warned that the UK produces 60% of its own food and this rate is both falling and in long-term decline. He also stressed that since the Brexit vote there has been a growing trend to buy British food.
Raymond explained that the objective was not a “fully self-sufficient nation” as some products can be better produced in other countries; however, British farmers should aim at “maximising on the food production we are good at, and looking at the potential for this”.