British farms ‘critically short’ of seasonal fruit and veg labour supply

England and Wales have suffered a 17% decline in the number of seasonal workers required for the harvesting of fruit and vegetables this season, according to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

The survey, which represents 30% of the total seasonal workforce, also found the proportion of returning seasonal workers dropped by almost 50% between May and January. The figures coincide with the beginning of the negotiations on Brexit between the UK government and the remaining 27 member states of the EU.

According to the NFU, which described the situation as “critical”, there were more than 1,500 unfilled vacancies on British farms in May alone. The labour shortage has resulted in calls for the newly-appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove to clarify how the industry will access “reliable” workers post-Brexit.

NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board Chairman Ali Capper said: “A lack of clarity regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU, and a weakened sterling, have contributed to the reduction in workers on-farm now being reported by labour providers who source seasonal workers.

“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 [that] 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.”

The results of the survey showed a four-fold increase in the number of labour providers unable to meet the requirements of the farms they supplied over the five-month period, with Capper particularly alarmed by the drop in returnees whose “past experience makes them so valuable”.

This comes after UK Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday, June 22, proposed that existing and new EU immigrants would be given the opportunity to establish the same rights as UK citizens in Britain. However, this was provided that they arrived before Brexit and that reciprocal rules were applied for UK immigrants across the bloc.

And, earlier this month, the NFU published research showing that British farmers were increasingly downbeat about Brexit, with twice as many prepared to reduce investment than increase it, in the 12 months ahead.