Labor shortages have led to ‘catastrophic’ food waste and put huge amounts of new crops at risk, UK farmers have warned as they enter peak season for harvesting tender fruit and vegetables .
The limited number of seasonal visas for foreign workers threatens a contraction in the sector, including the bankruptcy of some farms, industry groups said, just as the government’s recently released food strategy set out the goal of boosting production.
A survey of British Berry Growers members found annual waste that could solely be attributed to a lack of access to pickers nearly doubled from 2020 to 2021, from £18.7million to £36.5million of pounds sterling. Nick Marston, chairman of the industry group, predicted the total would “double again this year”.
“It will be more and not less a direct consequence of the tight labor supply, a direct consequence of the government’s immigration policy,” he said.
Ali Capper, executive chairman of British Apples and Pears and former chairman of the National Farmers’ Union Horticulture and Potato Council, said a grower would not have been able to harvest 2 million iceberg lettuces because there were not enough people to pick them.
“In May we had catastrophic food waste in crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, lettuce and asparagus,” she said.
Marston also raised the possibility of some farms being forced to close. “I’m sure we’ll see people start closing their doors and that’s pretty much two things,” he said. “It’s about the labor shortage and the risks attached to it.”
Capper, who grows apples and hops in Worcestershire, said it was ‘imperative’ farmers were able to sell whatever they were growing this year or they would go bankrupt due to rising oil costs. energy and related products such as fertilizers.
“I personally think [it] is morally wrong that we have this massive cost of living crisis,” she said.
She warned that significant waste could be repeated for apples and pears if immediate action was not taken to release more seasonal worker visas. “We have major shortages at the start of the season and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said.
The government’s food strategy released in June announced an increase in the number of seasonal worker visas from 30,000 to 40,000, but farm bodies said this was not enough and was coming too late for producers. Of the additional visas, 2,000 were allocated to the poultry sector.
NFU survey data for April showed there was an estimated national shortfall of seasonal workers of 12% in horticulture – or fruit and vegetable growing – triple the same month last year. The total number of seasonal worker visas to be issued this year for horticulture, 38,000, is still significantly below the NFU’s estimated demand of 70,000.
Farmers have warned that fewer returning seasonal workers will affect productivity as those with less experience fill in the gaps. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had an impact on that. Last year, about two-thirds of seasonal workers were Ukrainians.
Men of fighting age have been prevented from leaving the country since the invasion. In addition, the number of people from the EU that farms have been able to recruit, previously the main source of labour, is also decreasing after Brexit.
Andrew Pimbley’s small family farm Claremont Farm on the Wirral produces fewer strawberries and less asparagus and has stopped growing blackcurrants and gooseberries due to difficulties in finding labour.
“[It is] a relentless period of time where you just have to do it all. . . it’s extremely frustrating and extremely tiring because you can’t have days off. The farm once had a regular group of Polish seasonal workers, whom Pimbley struggled to replace.
So far this year, there has been an increase in the number of visas issued to workers from Central Asia, Moldova and Nepal, but there have been delays in processing visas for seasonal workers as applications for Ukraine Family Scheme were prioritized.
The British Poultry Council said the 2,000 seasonal worker visas it will receive were lower than what would have been better and announced months later. This could have a ripple effect on the number of turkeys available to consumers at Christmas, according to council chief executive Richard Griffiths. “The risk is that producers decide to floor fewer birds,” he said, adding that retailers could end up supplementing them with imports.
The NFU is already looking ahead to next year’s harvest, when the number of seasonal worker visas is expected to decline. In June, the government rejected a recommendation by the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make the scheme permanent, due to end at the end of 2024.
Martin Emmett, the new Chairman of the NFU Horticulture and Potato Council, has called on the government to provide advance notice for the allocation of seasonal worker visas in 2023, after this year’s quota was announced Christmas Eve. “It’s too late for horticulture companies to make sensible business decisions, so it’s really imperative that the industry is informed and aware of what will be available next year as soon as possible.”
In response, Agriculture Minister Victoria Prentis said: “Labour shortages are affecting countries around the world. To support our farmers, we have already increased the number of visas available through the seasonal worker route to 40,000.
“We have extended the program to include poultry and ornamental horticulture, we have conducted an automation review which will be published this summer, and we are working to encourage people to take jobs in the agricultural sector.