Farmers battle backlogs as food sector demands action on jobs crisis

Tom Bradshaw is vice president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU)

Tom Bradshaw is vice president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) - Credit: Adam Fradgley / NFU

The food and farming industry has made an urgent call for action to solve workforce shortages which have emptied shelves and created backlogs on farms.

A new cross-sector report is urging ministers to introduce a 12-month "Covid-19 Recovery Visa" to fill an estimated 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses.

A post-Brexit exodus of migrant workers returning to eastern Europe, exacerbated by Covid-19 factors, has been blamed for the shortage of HGV drivers and food processing staff.

In recent days, it has forced restaurants like Nando's and KFC to close restaurants due to a lack of chicken, sparked concerns over Christmas turkey supplies, and raised the suggestion of prisoners and school-leavers being asked to fill the void at meat factories.

But while consumers are feeling the effects, there is also a major impact on both livestock and arable farmers at the start of the supply chain. 

A backlog of pigs on the region's farms continues to worsen, and arable farmers in the midst of harvest are worried about what happens to their perishable crops if there are no drivers available to move it.

Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said: “At the very start of the supply chain, farm businesses are feeling the pressure. For example, horticulture farms are struggling to find the workforce to pick and pack the nation’s fruit and veg, with some labour providers seeing a 34pc shortfall in recruitment.

“Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs."

Mr Bradshaw said the NFU was getting several reports of delayed movements of arable crops off farms at harvest time due to a lack of lorry drivers.

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"The biggest concern is the financial impact if the crop left in the field loses its milling or malting quality and is downgraded so we have to sell it for less," he said.

"There definitely are delays, but the saving grace has been that the harvest has been slow because the weather has not been fantastic. If it had, the impact would have been severe."

Norfolk pig farmer Rob Mutimer, who is chairman of the National Pig Association, said the backlog of thousands of animals on Norfolk and Suffolk farms was growing while meat processing has slowed due to factory labour shortages.

"We desperately need a 12-month Covid recovery plan to kick-start our labour market and get things moving again," he said. "Without that, I don't know how we get through the winter. 

"The government wants us to train English people, but that does not happen overnight. It takes 12-24 months to get people trained for this new post-Brexit world."

Rob Mutimer of Swannington Farm to Fork is chairman of the National Pig Association

Rob Mutimer of Swannington Farm to Fork is chairman of the National Pig Association - Credit: Denise Bradley

Mr Mutimer said he believed Covid was the "underlying factor", with migrant workers and lorry drivers now taking holidays or travelling overseas to visit families, which they would have been unable to do during lockdown.

The report also calls for an expanded Seasonal Workers Scheme for horticultural growers and an urgent review on the impact of ending free movement on the food and farming sector.

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