4 August 2017

UK sees bumper crop of soft fruit but lack of labour to pick it

Ideal weather conditions are expected to help British growers produce a bumper crop of soft fruit this year.

British Summer Fruits, the industry body representing UK fruit growers, says that fruit farms have already reported large harvests of strawberries and cherries. And Tesco, the country’s biggest supermarket, has said it will be selling more British grown apricots than ever this year as a result of the warm summer.
“We have been experiencing bumper crops across both strawberries and cherries this year,” said a spokeswoman for British Summer Fruits.
She said the main reason was the weather. The cool, dry winter, coupled with recent warm weather – with temperatures up as high as 30 degrees Centigrade – had created the perfect growing conditions for this year’s crop of strawberries. Cherries had also done well, she said.
Whilst the fruit harvest is looking good, concerns are growing about the availability of labour to bring in the bumper crops.
Growers are reliant on migrant labour. The fruit industry spokeswoman said that growers had been able to recruit enough pickers this year, but they were concerned about problems ahead in the wake of Brexit.

‘More difficult’

Those fears were echoed by Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers’ Association.

He said the decision to withdraw from the European Union was making it more and more difficult to attract the migrant workers the UK needed.

“The labour situation has definitely tightened in the last 15 months,” he said. “It is more difficult and more costly to recruit people. There are fewer returners and the age profile, generally, is going up amongst seasonal labour. I think younger people are more prepared to go and do other things.

“If you wound the clock back 10 years, it would have been the younger people who pioneered the idea of coming from Lithuania or Romania or Bulgaria or the Czech Republic to pick fruit.

“They have now kind of moved on. Some of the slightly older generation are still coming and the younger generation are finding other things to do as their economies pick up”

‘Work a lot harder’

He said he had heard no reports so far of farmers being unable to find labour, but he said it was getting more difficult.

“I think what you are finding is that a lot of businesses are spending a lot more time recruiting than they have in previous years. They have got to work a lot harder to attract people.”

He said that, with unemployment levels in the United Kingdom at historically low levels, it was impossible to find the labour that growers needed from the British workforce.

Of the 48 million people registered to vote some 32 million were in employment. “That’s the highest level of employment since records began in ’71,” said Jack.

“There are round about 1.49 million people unemployed. Currently there are something like just shy of 800,000 unfilled vacancies.”

Jack said there was no prospect of being able to replace the migrant EU workers on whom British growers relied.

“Quite often in the areas we are looking at – the South East in particular – there are very, very low levels of unemployment. If you come to some of the other parts of the country – up here where we are in Cambridgeshire – there are high levels of employment, low levels of unemployment.

“There just simply aren’t the numbers of people in East Anglia to do the job. The same is true in the West Midlands.

“If you go to Herefordshire, where there is a large volume of crop of soft fruit, there just aren’t the numbers out there to do the job. Hence the reliance on seasonal labour. Every first world country is using imported labour to do these kinds of jobs. We are not alone in this.”

‘Big problem’

He said he believed that Defra understood the issue and he said that the Government was starting to realise that “when 10 per cent of the working population comes from the EU, actually suddenly turning round and saying we don’t want these EU workers is a big problem. It’s just not possible without doing irreparable damage to the UK economy.”

The spokeswoman for the soft fruit industry said the industry had been able to recruit the labour it needed this year, but she said it was worried about the future.

“All the farms have enough labour to pick the crops this year but we are concerned about getting enough labour for future seasons once Brexit has hit.”

A recent survey carried out for the NFU indicated that the number of seasonal workers coming to work on British farms had dropped by 17 per cent since the Brexit vote.

The union has been calling on the Government to ensure that the industry will still have access to migrant labour once the UK leaves the EU in 2019.

“A lack of clarity regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU and a weakened sterling has contributed to the reduction in workers on farm now being reported by labour providers who source seasonal workers,” said NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper.

“Farmers and growers need to know how the government will deal with the need from industries that rely on seasonal workers and the NFU is calling for reassurance farmers will be able to source a reliable and competent workforce both now and in the future.

“Without that, this trend is likely to continue and at this stage in the season any further tightening in the workforce will hit hard on farms.”

Soft fruit industry said the industry had been able to recruit the labour it needed this year, but she said it was worried about the future

126,000 tonnes

Over the past year, more than 126,000 tonnes of strawberries were sold in the UK, with shoppers spending more than £580 million on the fruit.

The consumption of fresh berries, which includes strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, has grown by 132 percent since 2007, outstripping the 49 percent increase in fruit consumption as a whole.

Growers predict this year’s cherry crop will be the largest in recent history at an estimated 5,000 tonnes – double last year’s crop.

Some 180 tonnes of apricots are expected to be picked in the UK this summer – the largest amount ever grown in the UK.

The number of UK producers’ commercially growing apricots has doubled in recent years. Nigel Bardsley, of Bardsley Farms in Kent, a partner supplier to Tesco, is the country’s largest apricot grower.

He said: “This year we have had pretty much perfect growing conditions with a cool winter needed to allow the trees to rest, a warm spring and lots of summer sunshine with a bit of rain in between.”

Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, said: “More and more people understand the fantastic health benefits of snacking on a punnet of berries, and fortunately we have been able to match this growing demand with innovation in the industry, to ensure consumers can look forward to good quality British berries on their supermarket shelves.”

The industry’s worry is that in the years ahead they may not be able to obtain the labour they will need to meet this growing demand for British soft fruits.

Credit to: https://www.farminguk.com/News/UK-sees-bumper-crop-of-soft-fruit-but-lack-of-labour-to-pick-it_47084.html