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Shortages of Farming Seasonal Workers Likely to Impact 2018 Harvest and Beyond

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Shortages of Farming Seasonal Workers Likely to Impact 2018 Harvest and Beyond

The agricultural sector is facing crisis point this year as shortages of temporary workers have hindered efforts to recruit to seasonal agricultural jobs. Although it's easy to cite Brexit as the major cause of labour shortages, the issue is probably more complex. Senior farm managers and owners will be reviewing their situation throughout the year and hoping that the UK government comes up with some solutions following their review of the Migration Advisory Committee's consultation on the impact leaving the EU will have on the agricultural labour market.

Seasonal agricultural workers in the UK

It's been common practice to recruit migrant workers from Eastern European countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, but as their economies have begun to grow, seasonal workers are less willing to make the journey to the UK. Of course, Brexit did have a huge impact on seasonal agricultural recruitment, G's Fresh in Ely ( is a huge farming complex which relies heavily on migrant workers and Sharon Cross, Ethical Working Director, had to put huge effort into recruiting for this 2018 season. In 2015 return workers comprised 72% of G's seasonal workforce, but in 2017 this was down to just 42%. The company typically operates a waiting list for new workers and had 750 applicants in 2015, they had nobody on their waiting list in 2017.

The major problem facing UK agriculture is that as global economies become more prosperous, seasonal workers from countries that were previously a great source become less keen on short-term harvesting jobs in richer countries. Brexit exacerbated the problem, as the drop in value of the pound led to worker wage cuts of around a third due to exchange rate differences. Many seasonal agricultural workers will spend two to three seasons harvesting in the UK in order to fund their studies. Sharon Cross commented that: "The problem with labour started before the referendum. The labour supply was getting shorter, as unemployment levels in Eastern Europe, and in the UK, had been going down and down and down." For example, unemployment in Bulgaria dropped from 12.3% in 2012 to 6.2% by 2018, while in Romania it's fallen from 7% to 5%.

Portwood Asparagus Farm in Norfolk is operated by Andy Allen, and recently supplied the asparagus to the royal kitchens for the Royal Wedding ( Andy Allen commented to The Guardian that: "We are completely reliant on seasonal migrant workers. If we can’t get that labour I’ll have to pack up. There is not the technology to pick asparagus with robots." He employs around 120 migrant workers and is already struggling to recruit, so much so that he has cut down on recent asparagus plantings as his crops take three years to grow. A spokeswoman from the migrant labour charity Concordia commented that interest in working in the UK has "dropped off dramatically" due to uncertainties surrounding Brexit and the value of the pound. Concordia supply workers for 200 UK farms, and one of their customers has already closed down operations because of this. 

Overseas expansion

Other growers are considering the benefits of shutting down UK operations and expanding their business overseas. Haygrove Farm in Herefordshire is one of the UK's largest berry producers and has cut its migrant workforce by 20% for the 2018 season, due to uncertainty about the status of workers. Angus Davison, the owner of Haygrove, commented that: "I would feel very, very sad for the people here, after 30 years of building together. But I would quickly move our activities abroad, with those that wanted to come. We’re not stuck here, we live on planet earth. If we don’t get the migrant workers for 2019, we can run it for a year [on the existing crop], and the year after we would close". 

The company already operates in South Africa and Portugal, and this year is expanding its blueberry and raspberry growing operations into Yunnan in China. It's not anticipated that berries will be exported to the UK from the Chinese operation, instead Haygrove Farm plans to work on expanding demand in the Asian markets. This is an extremely sad state of affairs for the UK growing sector, but agricultural growers faced with leaving crops rotting in fields and potential closure probably have no other options. 

2017 harvests

Alison Capper is the Chair of the NFU Horticultural Board and comments that UK agriculture needs around 80,000 seasonal workers annually and that government re-introduction of a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) could be one way to handle this crisis. In 2017 she had to send about 35,000kg of Gala eating apples for juicing because lack of pickers meant they became too ripe. This meant losses of around £30,000 and she said: "I know of several growers – of blueberries, strawberries – whose crops are going to waste because of lack of labour. They don’t want to say it publicly, to stick the head above the parapet, as they fear that would spoil their reputation."

Indeed, in 2017 one raspberry producer in Scotland had to leave £48,000 of unpicked raspberries, due to staff shortages, and similar instances are likely to happen throughout 2018. Growers are reluctant to highlight the problem in case it causes difficulties with the supermarkets they supply.

Are robot pickers the answer?

Andrea Leadsom is the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DeFRA) and is keen on embracing technology for the answers to worker shortages. Michael Gove, current Secretary of State, also seems to embrace the idea. The government recently announced £90mn for a "Transforming Food Production" initiative, which is geared towards the use of robotics, AI, and satellite data for improving the agri-food business. DeFRA also announced a £40mn grant programme for farmers planning to invest in new technologies like robotics. However, automation of the harvesting cycle seems fraught with difficulties. At present farmers of soft fruits and vegetables feel harvesting is a task best left to human pickers. There are prototype robots at present with abilities to harvest a variety of crops, including apples, cauliflower and strawberries, but gearing up mass production to handle the majority of UK fruit and veggie harvesting will take time, which is something growers in the current economic climate don't have.

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