A band of brave Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee members have taken to Scotland's fields to give fruit picking a go and hear about why labour shortages are forcing farmers to leave acres of produce to rot.
High-quality crops of Scottish soft fruit are now going to waste because of a shortfall in seasonal staff.
Joined National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) officeholders and staff on a Perthshire soft fruit farm, a cross-party group of MPs visited West Jordanstone Farm at Alyth, Blairgowrie.
The Marshall family has already had to leave crops to rot due to a lack of available staff to pick them. Other MPs visited soft fruit farms in Angus and the Borders to show their support.
Although not a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Kirstene Hair (Conservative MP for Angus) also met with NFU Scotland’s horticulture chairman James Porter, who sells berries through Angus Soft Fruits.
Picking fruit at West Jordanstone, NFU Scotland vice president Martin Kennedy said: “To see quality Scottish produce wasting in fields and polytunnels is appalling and the loss in potential value and revenue to businesses and the wider rural economy must be recognised and addressed.
Our survey of soft fruit and vegetable growers at the start of this year predicted that, without the reinstatement of an effective seasonal workers scheme, the difficulties encountered in recruiting staff in 2017 would only be exacerbated this season.
"Political dithering on this matter has seen those fears become a reality, the challenge of finding seasonal staff is hitting some producers hard and the distressing sight of crops being left to rot is happening right now.
“Recognising that a crisis was looming, we fed written and oral evidence into the Scottish Affairs Committee report on immigration that was published last week.
"We fully endorse its recommendation that the Government introduce a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme at the earliest possible date."
Speaking at West Jordanstone Farm, Pete Wishart MP, chairman of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee said: “Today’s trip to Alyth was not only a chance for members of the Scottish Affairs Committee to visit a vital part of Scotland’s agricultural sector, but also a chance to hear first-hand from those on the front line about the need for a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme – something we recommended in our recent Immigration and Scotland report.
Nobody wants to see fruit and vegetables go to waste in the fields due to labour shortages, and we hope to see the necessary support provided to Scottish farmers without delay.
'The Government must act before next havest'
Committee vice chairman John Lamont MP visited Borders Berries near Kelso.
He said: “There is a serious shortage of domestic labour willing to take on this kind of seasonal work, and it is vital the industry is able to recruit from further afield.
"The Government must urgently re-introduce the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Scheme, as the Committee has recommended.
“Irrespective of Brexit, the labour shortage in the soft fruit industry has escalated over recent years and is now at a critical stage.
In some parts of Scotland, fruit is left unpicked and rotting, and the industry will soon be 20,000 workers short of what it needs. Domestic labour and that from the European Economic Area simply isn’t covering it.
“Some farmers are already starting to lose income and need certainty about future hiring arrangements. A seasonal scheme worked well in the past, and would, I believe, work again now. The Government must act before the next harvest.”
'Not a Brexit issue'
Angus MP Kirstene Hair met NFU Scotland’s horticultural chairman James Porter.
She added: “I’ve been very clear since I was elected that we needed a seasonal workers scheme. Now that we’re halfway through the 2018 season, the lack of clarity is having a devastating impact on the industry.
“This isn’t a Brexit issue – EU countries such as Germany, Spain and Italy are facing identical issues and are increasingly recruiting their migrant labourers from non-EEA countries.
“The key thing now is for the Home Office to urgently set out a timescale for delivering a scheme that allows our vital soft fruit sector to thrive.”