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UK fruit growing ‘at risk’ without access to seasonal workforce, jam maker warns

PUBLISHED: 12:18 11 June 2018

Chris Newenham, joint managing director at Wilkin and Sons Picture: SU ANDERSON

Chris Newenham, joint managing director at Wilkin and Sons Picture: SU ANDERSON

An Essex fruit grower and jam maker fears that Brexit could put its UK growing operation in jeopardy unless politicians agree to reinstate a seasonal agricultural workers scheme to give it access to a reliable workforce.

Strawberries being grown at Wilkin & Sons' Tiptree site Picture: SU ANDERSONStrawberries being grown at Wilkin & Sons' Tiptree site Picture: SU ANDERSON

Celebrated jam brand Wilkin & Sons at Tiptree employs around 300 seasonal workers, mainly from Bulgaria and Romania, to pick its fruit at the peak of the season.

These are in addition to its permanent UK workforce of around 400 at its jam factory and its farm operation. It fears that uncertainty around Brexit will have a negative impact and that it and other UK fruit growing operations in the UK will be hampered by lack of access to seasonal workers.

Wilkin & Sons joint managing director Chris Newenham stressed that it had no intention of moving its factory abroad, but in a ‘Doomsday scenario’, if the seasonal workforce is not secured in future years, it may have to look at either growing fruit on the Continent where it can get access to workers, or buying in its fruit from abroad.

“We are, as we have been for a long time, very concerned about how we are going to secure a viable seasonal workforce,” he said.

Fruit growing at Wilkin & Son, Tiptree Picture: SU ANDERSONFruit growing at Wilkin & Son, Tiptree Picture: SU ANDERSON

The ‘logical extension’ of not being able to secure a seasonal workforce is “we won’t be able to continue growing our produce here”, he said.

“We might need to grow our fruit on the Continent or consider buying our produce in from the Continent,” he said.

But “not in a million years” would it consider moving its jam-making operations from Essex, he said. “We are fighting as hard as we can at the moment to ensure that common sense prevails and we have a viable workforce for the industry.”

Mr Newenham said he would like to return to a version of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (SAWS), which was abolished in 2013, but he sees as a “shining example” of a workable scheme.

The Tiptree operation does buy in fruit from abroad, such as oranges, but grows a range of fruit, including strawberries, raspberries, cherries, plums and greengages across 200 acres at Tiptree. Uncertainty over Brexit has meant that while the business would like to expand its fruit growing area and its volume, it has had to “hasten very slowly”, he said.

“We are very proud of the fact we have the vertical integration we have got and we would like to continue,” he added.

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