Tiptree fruit farmer calls for new SAWS to be brought in as seasonal labour numbers fall and prices threaten to rise

Chris Newenham of Wilkins of Tiptree.

Chris Newenham of Wilkins of Tiptree. - Credit: Doug Blanks

An East Anglian fruit farmer has called for the reintroduction of a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) as the number of seasonal workers drops to critically low levels on some British farms and fears grow that British soft fruit prices will soar.

Chris Newenham, pictured, who manages the farm for Essex jam makers Wilkin & Son at Tiptree, where he is joint managing director, said a new version of the scheme, abolished in 2013, should be brought in.

“The important issue for us is for legislators to appreciate the need for the reintroduction of a SAWS type scheme,” he said.

“The old SAWS scheme was an exemplar of how a well-managed seasonal work permit scheme can work and a successor which would be welcomed by us and the industry would help to give us some confidence for the future. We operated under the old SAWS scheme for nearly 70 years.”

A new survey by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) revealed this week that the number of seasonal workers coming to work on British farms has dropped 17%, leaving some farms critically short of people to harvest fruit and vegetables.

Another study, by farm business consultants Andersons for industry body British Summer Fruits, predicted the price of strawberries and other British summer fruit will “soar” if Brexit negotiations fail to allow for seasonal labourers from Europe to cultivate and harvest the crops,

The NFU survey of labour providers revealed they are currently unable to recruit sufficient numbers of workers to meet growers’ needs during the busy harvesting season, leaving more than 1,500 unfilled vacancies on British farms in May alone.

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The NFU called on the Government and newly appointed environment secretary Michael Gove to provide reassurances to growers that there will be clarity on how farms will access a reliable and competent workforce, now and post-Brexit.

British Summer Fruits said soft fruit production in the UK has grown by 131% over the last 20 years to a value of more than £1.2bn, largely as a result of an increase in home-grown strawberries.

It said Brexit was already exacerbating a shortage of the seasonal labour and has warned MPs that losing access to European workers will have a “disastrous and cataclysmic” impact on the industry.