Stockbrokers and film producers among new intake for ‘Vine Army’
- Credit: Archant
Last year, Tom Bunting’s vineyard team consisted of a team of workers from eastern Europe.
This year, his new ‘Vine Army’ includes a stock broker, a film producer, a marketing executive and a marine biologist – and they all come from within just a few miles of his Colchester base. The remarkable recruitment turnaround follows an appeal for workers after Tom’s labour supply dried up following the coronavirus lockdown, with farm labourers from the continent unable to make it across.
To his surprise, more than 150 applied to join the ‘Vine Army’ – whose job is to plant and maintain vines and harvest grapes at vineyards across East Anglia – for the 10 posts available.
“They are an interesting crowd,” he says.
Applications are now closed, but Tom says he still receives emails every day from workers seeking a job on the vineyards.
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The vineyard management firm – owned by Tom – is based at Prettyfields, a 10-acre vineyard at Ardleigh, near Colchester, which he co-owns with his two cousins, Robert and Rosie Blyth.
Through his vineyard management operation, he works with a number of the UK’s leading wineries and offers vineyard management from planting to grape harvest.
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His new vineyard team – whom he interviewed over the phone due to lockdown restrictions – has just finished its first assignment – planting a new vineyard at Tattingstone, south of Ipswich.
“Everyone is really working well and really keen and really enjoying it actually,” he says.
He can provide work for his recruits for up to nine months of the year, starting with pruning from December through to February, tying canes to wire arches, planting in April, followed by bud removal, crown thinning, tucking the vine in, then harvest up to October.
Once he knew his workers weren’t going to manage to get across, he started to put the word out via Prettyfields and on social media, but hadn’t expected such a response.
“It’s phenomenal really,” he says. “I sensed we would get quite a few people, but not to the numbers we have, I must admit.”
Some of the recruits have been made redundant or furloughed during the coronavirus lockdown, and some appear to yearn for a different lifestyle, and have jumped at the chance of being out in the fresh air.
“It makes social distancing easier – vines are 2.4m apart,” he explains.
“It’s sociable and it’s getting outside, and everybody is thoroughly enjoying it.”
It’s also an opportunity for people to see and understand vineyards, he adds, and he hopes some of the benefits of getting in the local workforce this year may have long-term benefits, including in broadening their customer base.
“If the local community further afield can buy English wine it would really help our industry,” he says.
Wine sales have taken a hit from lockdown with the hospitality trade closed down, but new markets are beginning to emerge, he says.
“Obviously, a lot of wine is sold through the hotels and restaurants – but then we had a big surge in online sales for Prettyfields vineyard,” he says.
“Once we come out of this lockdown and are back to normal, if people support the local producers and shops, and we are here now producing things, it would be great long term.”
The work is tiring, he admits, “but it’s also rewarding in a different way”.
As the Vine Army finished their work at Tattingstone, they had a sense of job satisfaction, he says. “Everyone looked back and said: ‘Yes, I’m a part of that’ – there’s a legacy I suppose.”
And the new workforce, unaccustomed as some might be to the work, are settling in well.
“I couldn’t fault them to be honest,” he says.
Although some might think taking on farm workers not used to that type of work might be a gamble, Tom disagrees.
“I just think everyone deserves an opportunity,” he says.
He adds: “We are sitting here at a time of great uncertainty, but what I think we’ll see is a lot of people supporting local products.”