Labour-intensive organic vegetable operation ‘under threat’ from worker shortages
- Credit: Archant
A large scale vegetable grower who farms on the Suffolk coast says he may be forced to abandon his organic enterprise – if he can’t get enough overseas workers in to weed and harvest.
James Foskett, of James Foskett Farms, based at Bromeswell, near Woodbridge, has a 25-strong permanent workforce to work his 2,600 acre operation. He also takes on a large number of seasonal staff for a variety of tasks including his labour-intensive organic operation - but these workers are becoming more scarce.
He grows crops including seed potatoes, ware potatoes, onions, organic crops, sugarbeet, carrots and cereals, and the organic side - grown over 500 acres - includes potatoes, onions, carrots, butternut squash, green beans, beetroot and sweetcorn.
MORE - UK potato growers 'very worried' as homegrown crop shortage loomsHis workforce peaks at around 75 Romanians and Bulgarians at the height of the season, supplemented by some agency staff "when pushed" - but the supply of labour is drying up.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has called on the government to expand its Seasonal Workers Pilot scheme after fruit and vegetable growers across the UK were hit by continuing worker shortages this year.
"It's becoming more and more difficult to get the numbers of Eastern European workers we require to run our organic vegetable business and to man harvesters and graders during our six month harvesting period," said Mr Foskett.
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"If we cannot get enough people unfortunately the organic enterprise will have to stop because it involves a huge amount of hand weeding and harvesting.
"I believe it's essential the government increases the nationwide pilot for 2500 workers which is currently running for people outside of the European Union (EU) giving us access to workers from other countries."
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He had been assured by his local MP, Thérèse Coffey, that he would be able to recruit EU nationals regardless of whether the UK reaches a deal with the EU, he said.
Figures from the NFU suggest worker shortages of 11% so far this year, with produce going to waste as a result. In the apple sector alone, more than 1000 tonnes have been left unpicked - the equivalent of 16m apples, it said.
NFU president Minette Batters said: "It is clear that seasonal labour shortages are continuing to hit British growers and we have seen a rapid rise in the numbers of workers leaving early this year. This is having significant impacts on farm businesses and the wider supply chain, with a number of reports from growers that produce is going to waste because of worker shortages."
The NFU said it continually raised the issue with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Home Office and believes the simple solution would be to expand the seasonal workers' pilot. "British horticulture is a real success story; it delivers almost 20% of agricultural value from less than 2% of the UK farmed area," said Ms Batters.
"If worker shortages continue to bite, we are putting that in danger. This also comes at the time we are faced with the threat of a no-deal Brexit.
"Nearly all fresh produce sectors will receive no tariff protection from imports, which could see our market opened up to imports of fruit and veg produced to standards that would be illegal here. We are continuing to make the case to government that there should be seasonal tariff protection for our key crops. But the priority must be to avoid a catastrophic no-deal Brexit in the first place.
"There are real opportunities to take advantage of the ambition British growers have to harness innovation, invest in the latest growing systems and take advantage of the drive to get the public eating more fruit and veg. To do that, we need any Brexit to be orderly, and a future immigration system and domestic agricultural policy that fits business need and allows growers to properly invest and innovate."