East Anglian fruit farmers overwhelmed by massive response as UK workers answer call for more pickers
PUBLISHED: 17:21 29 April 2020 | UPDATED: 08:18 30 April 2020
One small Suffolk fruit grower is now sifting more than 1,000 applications for just 10 seasonal jobs after a UK drive to recruit more workers tapped into an unexpected public groundswell.
Brothers Paul and Clive Williamson, of Williamson Growers, Church Farm, Bradfield Combust, near Bury St Edmunds, were taken completely by surprise at the massive response after advertising the roles.
They were among a host of East Anglian farmers inundated with offers to pick their raspberry, strawberry, apple and pear crops after registering on the government’s ‘Pick for Britain’ site.
It is aimed at boosting the UK’s seasonal workforce as the coronavirus lockdown temporarily stops eastern European pickers – who normally fill the posts – travelling across.
MORE – Farm flooded with applications from UK workers wanting to pick fruit
But Clive – who runs the Maynard House Orchards fruit juice-making side of the operation while his brother grows the fruit – said they had been touched by the response, with prospective pickers in their 70s and young students among those answering the call. Some had even offered their services for free.
Clive said they had been “completely swamped”, with up to 150 applications in a single day, and types of applicants varying enormously.
“There are so many lovely people who are willing and keen to help,” he said. But he admitted they didn’t have the resources to cope with the numbers, so they had been creating a database and were emailing them en masse.
With the farm not needing more workers until June 1, it had all come a bit early, he added. The strawberries – which are grown under irrigated polytunnels on the 150 acre fruit farm – had only gone in a few weeks ago, he said.
With temperatures in the tunnels soaring to up to 40C at their height, the picking day starts very early – 4am – meaning workers needed to be housed within range of the farm.
“We are finished by lunch time – it’s just too hot,” he explained. Sometimes there’ll be an evening shift too.
With fruit ripening periods varying, workers also needed to be flexible, he warned. “That’s why we all have these caravan parks on our farms so people can pick at a moment’s notice.”
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The farm has 25 pickers in all, with 10 vacancies. There were already Bulgarians and Romanians on site before the coronavirus lockdown, pruning and planting and working on a range of crops including Christmas trees. The farm’s concern for future years is that if unemployment in the UK goes through the roof, it might not be able to get its eastern European workforce back in future.
“It’s not easy work. It’s bent over working close to the ground. The first week is significantly harder than most people expect – it’s physically tiring,” he said. “Once you have got through the first week you are keeping up with other people, earning a decent wage.”
But the “good, willing” UK public were all very keen, he said.
Although small, the farm does provide a lot of strawberries to the supermarkets via a purchasing organisation (PO).
Meanwhile, DC Williamson, a fruit farm on the Suffolk-Essex border at Bradfield, near Manningtree, has also been flooded with applicants.
The farm – which is run by Craig and Gail Williamson and produces Barn Farm Drinks – has had more than 400 inquiries for about 25 to 30 possible vacancies at the height of the picking season, when about 50 are employed on site.
DC Williamson operations director Jason Clench said they had been “overwhelmed” by the response to their appeal for picking staff for the coming season – the first time that they had not just relied on their own returning workforce and licensed agencies. But the work was physically demanding, he warned.
“We look forward to welcoming our new pickers to Barn Farm for a busy summer of safe and social distancing cropping,” he said. “I think it’s great that the will is there for people to come and do it – it’s whether the reality of an industrial horticultural setting is maybe something different to other people’s perception of what picking might be.”
Jason said the response to the appeal for workers had been “really positive”. “We won’t really know until we are asking for pickers at the end of May or beginning or June whether that will translate into numbers,” he said.
The applicants had been predominantly English, but there was a range of nationalities, he said. “They are people that have been furloughed or work seasonally in hospitality and are looking for other work.”
As well as its on-site workforce, the 130-acre farm welcomes returnees every year from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. His understanding was that the Romanians were hoping to relax some of their constraints by mid-May, meaning that some of these might be able to return.
The seasonal workforce will pick crops including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and rhubarb.
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