There is an urgent need for a substantial trial of a seasonal agricultural permit scheme for non-EU workers in the 2017 season in the UK, according to the National Farmers' Union (NFU).
This trial could be essential in mitigating the shortfall in EU workers available to work on British farms, NFU Horticulture Board Chairman Ali Capper has said.
In the UK, the farming industry has very specific needs for labour in agriculture and horticulture, something the NFU is already in discussion with the government on, Capper said.
"Horticulture alone needs around 80,000 seasonal workers to pick and pack fruit, vegetable and plant crops across the country.
This is expected to rise to 95,000 by 2021 based on today’s growth projections.
“Our message to the Home Office was simple: without workers to produce iconic British crops the industry will contract and imports will increase," he said.
Both Capper and the NFU are satisfied that the Home Office has a full understanding of how important access to a competent, flexible and reliable workforce is for food production.
However, without basic assurances from the government that this labour will be accessible in the future, grower businesses face huge uncertainty which is causing delays in investment in British production, Capper said.
The NFU Deputy President, Minette Batters has said that sourcing labour isn’t a problem that is limited to just the fruit and vegetable sector.
Workers from across the skill spectrum who specialise in animal husbandry, dairy, cereals, machinery and processing are needed, Batters said.
There is a need for a flexible workforce across food and farming - an industry that is worth £108 billion to the nation’s economy.
Meanwhile, an expert in agricultural technology has said that driverless vehicles could help farmers avoid shortages of labour after Brexit.
Professor Simon Blackmore told the House of Lords' Science and Technology Select Committee that driverless vehicles could "replace significant numbers" of seasonal workers.
"Farmers dealing with high-value crops right now are using seasonal labour, and with the advent of Brexit and possible limitations on seasonal labour, a lot of the farmers I'm speaking to are very, very nervous," he said.
Current tractor drivers would be required to up-skill before operating these new machines, Blackmore said.
British crops in danger of being left in the ground following Brexit
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote in the June, the NFU said that British crops could be left unharvested if foreign labour is restricted.
The UK’s exit from the EU has created uncertainty for farmers and growers, leaving them unsure how to plan for the future, Ali Capper said earlier this year.
Foreign labour is crucial to the picking, grading and packing of crops that provide consumers with the range of quality and affordable British horticultural produce they’ve come to expect and enjoy, Capper said.
"It is not unusual for horticultural producers to be planning crops 10 years in advance, yet these crops cannot be produced without good labour supply."