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Members of public call farmers to offer help with harvest

PUBLISHED: 14:19 03 April 2020 | UPDATED: 14:19 03 April 2020

Farmworkers at Home Farm Nacton  Picture: ALEX FAIRFULL

Farmworkers at Home Farm Nacton Picture: ALEX FAIRFULL

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Suffolk farmers facing a crisis in seasonal worker recruitment as the vital picking and weeding season gets under way are getting unprecedented numbers of calls from the public offering their services.

Farmworkers working on a leek crop at Home Farm Nacton  Picture: ALEX FAIRFULLFarmworkers working on a leek crop at Home Farm Nacton Picture: ALEX FAIRFULL

With harvest time either arriving or approaching for crops like asparagus and other vegetable and fruit crops, farmers are pinning their hopes on help from the government to muster a workforce.

But Charles Hesketh, the National Farmers’ Union’s county adviser for Suffolk, said farmers in the county are also getting offers of support from the public as the coronavirus lockdown exacerbates shortages already being felt before the health crisis.

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“The situation is pressing for some growers and looks set to rise as the demands for labour increase as the season progresses,” he said.

But he added: “There’s been a lot of interest from the public in the feed the nation (Concordia labour provider) campaign.

Andrew Williams, manager of Home Farm Nacton, looking at his leek crop, which has now been harvested for the year  Picture: ANDREW PARTRIDGEAndrew Williams, manager of Home Farm Nacton, looking at his leek crop, which has now been harvested for the year Picture: ANDREW PARTRIDGE

“Once the recruitment scheme is launched, it’s our view and expectation that it will be a government-led initiative, but many farms across Suffolk have already have members of the public calling them up direct offering to help out with this year’s harvest.”

Andrew Williams, farm manager at Home Farm Nacton, near Ipswich, said they had been getting calls from students and others looking for seasonal work.

“It’s unusual – we wouldn’t normally get calls like that. We might get some calls from students but not this early and not in these numbers,” he said.

At his farm, pickers on site were finishing harvesting the winter vegetables – cauliflower and leeks, he said.

Farmworkers busy with an earlier harvest at Home Farm Nacton  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNFarmworkers busy with an earlier harvest at Home Farm Nacton Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

He retained a hard core of about 15 or so permanent field workers, shielding the business from seasonal fluctuations, and the agency which provided the farm with workers appeared confident it could source them, he said. “It’s folks who are already over here and are committed to be over here for a while,” he explained.

But he added: “They (the agency) are getting a lot of calls from people who now find themselves out of work – students and the self-employed folk – builders, landscape gardeners etc.”

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For those unused to the demands of the job, it could be challenging, he warned.

Crops growing durign a previous season at Home Farm Nacton  Picture: ALEX FAIRFULLCrops growing durign a previous season at Home Farm Nacton Picture: ALEX FAIRFULL

“It’s new territory for them and for us – it’s quite hard physical work and some of them won’t be so used to that.”

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said it was continuing to lobby government on the issue and was talking to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

It is also working with partners on what a recruitment mechanism would look like to ensure recruitment is as slick as possible once a new scheme is launched – but the NFU remains clear that it believes government should co-ordinate this.

Essex farmer Tom Bradshaw, the new vice president of the NFU, has been heavily involved with meeting with environment secretary George Eustice about mobilising a British workforce for this year’s workforce.

A recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army.A recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army.

Some have evoked some war-time comparisons with the ‘Land Army’ – which in those years was made up of women and other non-combatants – to help with harvest.

Recruitment agencies are reportedly getting a good response from UK-based workers and they are looking towards recruiting for the start of the busy harvesting period, beginning with berries in late April and early May.

Mr Bradshaw, who farms at Fordham, near Colchester, said they were working with DEFRA to find “innovate and creative” solutions to the urgent problem.

“Growers that rely on seasonal workers to grow, pick and pack our fresh fruit, veg and flowers are extremely concerned about the impact coronavirus restrictions may have on their ability to recruit this critical workforce this season,” he said.

Womans Land Army members, from Suffolk towns and villages, marching along Crown Street, Ipswich, in the 1940s  Picture: DAVID KINDRED'S ARCHIVEWomans Land Army members, from Suffolk towns and villages, marching along Crown Street, Ipswich, in the 1940s Picture: DAVID KINDRED'S ARCHIVE

“It is vital that government takes the lead in putting in place a range of measures to co-ordinate and support the logistics involved in mobilising the tens of thousands of British people who will be needed to bring in our fruit and veg harvest. This will include a potential system to match interested workers with employers, as well as other incentives that will encourage students and British workers to apply for jobs.

“We are urging the British people, university students, anyone looking for work, to mobilise behind British growers in this time of national importance and pick for Britain. There will be thousands of vacancies opening up in fields, polytunnels, glasshouses and packhouses across the country in the coming weeks and we need people to help deliver healthy, affordable British fruit and veg from field to plate.”

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