The farming industry says it faces a huge shortfall of workers to harvest fruit and vegetables even though many thousands of people have expressed an interest in joining a new “land army”.
The campaign to recruit as many as 90,000 is being backed by environment secretary George Eustice who said: “We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months … I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.”
At least 10,000 people, from former service personnel to retirees and horse racing staff, have signed up for a Feed the Nation campaign run by three major UK labour providers.
Another major producer said it had received a stream of applications from a wide cross-section of people, including high-flying university graduates, but was still deeply concerned about filling its 2,500 vacancies.
With the first major crop, asparagus, normally ready for harvest next month, farmers and producers are worried that the loss of seasonal workers who normally come in from the EU will mean some produce may not be picked.
Volunteer helpers might be able to lend a hand on smaller farms, but major producers want paid staff whom they can train and rely on to stay.
Some farms have come up with imaginative schemes such as allowing people to pick produce, take home what they want and “sell” to the farm what they do not want, but such ideas can only have a limited impact.
Stephanie Maurel, the chief executive of the charity Concordia, which is working with the labour providers Hops and Fruitful on the Feed the Nation scheme, said 10,000 people had signed up to work at more than 500 farms so far.
Almost 90% are British and less than a third have previous experience in agriculture. Half said Covid-19 had affected their jobs.
Maurel said 90,000 of jobs, usually covered by 60,000 people working across the season, needed to be filled. “We’re worried that there’s going to be a shortfall,” she said. Ninety per cent of seasonal workers usually come from the EU, but the Covid-19 crisis on top of Brexit means most will stay away.
The campaign to recruit as many as 90,000 people is being backed by the environment secretary, George Eustice, who said: “We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months … I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.”
G’s Growers, a major independent producer organisation, urgently needs to recruit thousands of both indoor and outdoor staff. Beverley Dixon, the group’s human resources manager, said it had seen a huge response so far to domestic recruitment but needed many more to apply.
G’s is one of the country’s biggest salad growers, producing 250m packs of lettuces and celery a year. “Because of coronavirus we have suddenly found ourselves with 2,500 vacancies. We start harvest on 22 April and the harvest lasts until October,” said Dixon.
“Everybody is worried we don’t have food on our shelves. We are planting that food now, but we don’t have the pickers. If we don’t get the pickers the food will remain in the ground.
“At this time of national crisis, it has never been more important to keep the supply chain moving. We’d like people to get behind the cause and come and work for us.”
Many consider harvesting break-backing and difficult, but Dixon said the jobs on offer ranged from tractor drivers and “fun outdoor work” to indoor posts for engineers paying around GBP400 a week.
Nick Marsden, the chairman of the industry body British Summer Fruits, said: “The numbers of available jobs are large and varied. Farmers are hoping to target students. but also those laid off in the hospitality sector.”
Picking strawberries or raspberries pays about between GBP10 and GBP11 an hour, but with productivity bonuses most earn GBP14 an hour, he said.
“It is a critical time to have a healthy diet and 90% of berries on supermarket shelves in the season shelves are British. If we don’t get the pickers it will be a shame not just for the farmers but for the consumer,” he said.
Andy Allen of Portwood Farm in Norfolk said he was worried. “Due to European workers not being able to make their way to the farm this year because of closed borders and cancelled flights, we have been short on the 130 workers we need to pick and pack our asparagus.
“This year our job as farmers is purely about feeding the nation. There’s no money to be made,” he said.
The Landworkers’ Alliance, a union representing more than 1,000 small and medium-scale farmers, has written to the government calling for a GBP9m package of support to help protect local food supply and support a paid “land army”.
It pointed out that the UK was likely to experience an interruption in the supply of imported fresh fruit and veg from southern Europe, where producers are delaying and reducing spring planting.
Vicki Hird, the farm campaign coordinator for the Sustain Alliance, said: “A nation that fails its farmers and its environment and its health is a failing nation. There is no excuse. The government must respond.”