The UK’s fruit and vegetable growers are facing a steep increase in costs and struggling to retain hastily recruited local pickers after the coronavirus lockdown prevented the arrival of the usual seasonal workforce from eastern Europe.
As the UK enters peak picking season, growers of crops from strawberries to asparagus said they were struggling as the higher recruitment and labour costs were not matched by any increase in prices paid for their produce.
Fruit and vegetables are normally picked by some 70,000 to 80,000 migrant workers, mainly from eastern Europe, who are recruited in winter, travel to the UK in spring and return home once the season ends.
But the pandemic hit just as picking season began this year, preventing travel for many. That forced farmers to hurriedly launch a new staffing drive for UK-based workers in April, backed by a government campaign.
The scramble foreshadows problems the sector is likely to face after freedom of movement for EU citizens ends when the Brexit transition phase expires on 31 December, unless the UK makes additional provisions for overseas farm workers.
“This is not a very profitable sector any more and we have had cost increases that are significant this year,” said Angus Davison, chairman of the Herefordshire-based berry growing group Haygrove.
Labour can account for as much as 70 per cent of a farm’s costs, according to the National Farmers Union.
Mr Davison, whose business generates annual turnover of £25m from UK fruit sales, said that productivity was far lower among many of the newly recruited, UK-based workers, around a third of whom have already left.
“They are dropping like flies at the moment. It isn’t good,” he said. “If we can end the season with half of the recruits having been successful that will be a good result but I don’t take it for granted that we will.”
The local recruitment drive has been relatively successful. Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, said between 20 and 30 per cent of pickers were British or UK residents, up from less than 1 per cent previously. But turnover of staff is at least double last year.
The staffing problems have added to cost pressures and Ali Capper, chair of the NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board, said the union was preparing an assessment of increases to share with government and supermarkets.
Horticulture farms made just £34,500 of profit on average from farming in the 2019-2018 financial year, government data show. Excluding additional income from subsidies and non-farming activities, this translates into a net operating margin of 9.5 per cent, according to FT calculations.
“We work in a very low margin environment where it is very difficult to get price increases. We have some of the most sophisticated retailers in the world and they are very powerful,” she said.
Farmers whose crops, such as asparagus, ripen early in the year have especially suffered because of the timing of the pandemic. Matt Stanton, an asparagus and arable farmer in Kent, said that as harvesting draws to a close he has had to leave about a quarter of his 50 hectares of asparagus in the ground unharvested.
He would normally have about 80 seasonal workers, mostly returnees, but this year had to make do with 50 — many of them new to the farm after being hastily recruited through agencies — plus a handful of UK workers.
He said: “Although I’ve lost revenue I’ve still got to pay rent on the land . . . It’ll only be at the end of the season that we’ll see if we have managed to make any money or break even.”
Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers’ Association, said the output of inexperienced pickers is “anything up to 30 per cent lower,” adding: “It doesn’t matter whether you are a Brit or a non-Brit.”
Mr Davison said his farms, which grow strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, managed to recruit about 1,000 overseas workers.
He supplemented them with 140 pickers from the UK, whittled down from 2,500 applications from an ad on Facebook. Half were not able to achieve the required picking rates, and many have now left.
“It is mentally demanding — you have to concentrate on a repetitive task and it’s hard to be economically productive . . . It’s possible that the eastern Europeans have more physical, practical experiences . . . [and] they are hungry for earning because the living wage is a lot more than they can earn in their own country,” Mr Davison said.
Rose-Anna Waudby Ahmet, a 24-year-old art student from Bristol turned picker on one of Mr Davison’s farms, agreed. “I have been having a tough time adjusting to how hard European workers work and what the farm expects, but just as long as you try and don’t give up and believe, you can achieve it.”
Hector Kidwell, 26, supervises teams of pickers, after being furloughed from a sales job at the children’s activity and travel group PGL. “It’s quite similar to sales actually . . . it’s really target driven,” he said. “I’ve gone from a useless sales and marketing person [after work ceased in the pandemic] to being a key worker, which does rather a lot for your self-esteem.”
Mr Davison said he planned to continue hiring UK-based workers, but cautioned ministers should not see the relative success of farms like his in the pandemic as a sign they could survive using only British labour.
From next year, any foreign worker wanting to come to the UK will have to meet a minimum salary threshold of £25,600, well above the pay of farm pickers, who generally receive a piece rate that is topped up if necessary to reach the minimum or living wage.
A seasonal workers’ scheme this year allowed in 10,000 temporary non-EU farm workers, but farmers said a much bigger scheme would be needed once EU workers can no longer travel freely. “We are evaluating the pilot so we can see how it could meet the needs of farmers and growers,” the government said.
Although the pandemic is expected to lead to a sharp rise in UK unemployment, those losing their jobs are not necessarily based where farm work is available.
Mr Ward said: “What Covid has done is underline our reliance on all sorts of people we probably chose not to think about when we were talking about immigration [and Brexit].”
He said there was a perception that if there was mass unemployment there would be “mass willingness to do jobs that people hadn’t previously contemplated. But it’s a much more complicated equation than that.”
Mr Davison said he thought around 5 per cent of UK crops could be harvested by local workers next year, “but no more. It is imperative the government enable a seasonal workers scheme, or we will not exist.”