Some 90,000 workers are needed this summer on UK farms. Nevertheless, there is a real danger that the UK’s fruit producers will not have sufficient workers to harvest the bumper fruit crop expected this year. Although the spring weather means a slightly delayed harvest, fruit yields should be good this year, which is vital at this time of year as the UK consumes 34,000 kg of strawberries over the fortnight of the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Scotland and the north of the country are worst affected by the lack of labour as their relatively shorter seasons make the jobs less attractive.
The shortfall of farm labourers predates Brexit. With unemployment falling in Romania and Bulgaria, fewer citizens of these countries are now seeking work abroad. This is why other EU countries look beyond Europe’s borders. For instance, Poland hires many North Korean workers to harvest its crops and Portugal hires from Thailand. Ironically, the UK is the only EU country that hires exclusively EU workers.
The Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggests that almost a third of its members are scaling back as a result of the shortage and some reported they would be removing orchards, which is worrying given that more than 60% of the country’s traditional orchards have disappeared since the 1950s.
The Association of Labour Providers said 49% of labour providers do not expect to be able to source sufficient seasonal agricultural workers this year. An average of 60% of agriculture and horticulture businesses are experiencing shortages in low and unskilled roles, with one in eight in crisis.
The outlook is as yet unclear and will remain so until September, when the berry season ends and the apples and pears season begins. This is when demand for labour is highest. In September 2016 the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said there was a 17% shortfall, while in 2017 this had increased to nearly 30%.