Labour pains

An absence of seasonal workers has left fruit farmers relying on a “land army” of students and hospitality workers to harvest their crops. Will they be cut out for it, asks David Burrows.

Things change quickly during this coronavirus crisis. A couple of weeks ago, the focus was on the tens of thousands of jobs lost in hospitality. Now it’s become a matter of filling labour shortages on farms: 70,000 people are needed this year on fruit, vegetable and dairy farms (and even in abattoirs). Seasonal workers from across the EU normally take 98% of these roles, but this year it’ll be up to locals. Farming groups have called for a “land army” and by yesterday those answering the call numbered an incredible 26,000 – with many of them reportedly bar and restaurant workers who have lost their jobs and students.

This is incredibly encouraging, not least because some soft fruits are just about ripe for picking. But is this hastily assembled army able and willing to see the job through?

There are vast tonnages to harvest. More than a fifth (22%) of fruit purchases in the UK are of soft fruit, according to Kantar, and productivity has increased dramatically in the past decade or so. Production of strawberries was 67,500 tonnes in 2006, for example, but by 2015 it was more than 115,000, according to Defra figures. Raspberries also shot up from 12,200 tonnes to 17,200 tonnes.

Factor in the labour required and you start to see why farm owners have been panicking. Every tonne of strawberries requires an average of 120 to 160 hours of labour, whilst for raspberries it’s 350 hours; for anything else this rises to 375 hours (having picked gooseberries I can testify to the increased effort required). So, for the entire UK soft fruit crop you are looking at a total of 24.5m hours, according to a report for British Summer Fruits, the industry body, in 2017.

It’s now 2020, and rather than 142,100 tonnes of soft fruit to pick, it is likely to be just shy of 163,000. That’s 27.4m hours – provided you are using organised, hard-working and experienced pickers. This year however the sector is relying on the enthusiasm of tens of thousands of people who have never done this kind of work before. Horticulture jobs are perceived as physically hard and poorly paid, notes Honor Eldridge, head of policy at the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT). There is also a sense, she adds, that these are “jobs for immigrants”.

Her words brought to mind a conversation with a fruit farmer in the Southwest of England when I was cutting my teeth as a reporter at Farmers Guardian. He had tried to build a local workforce for the picking duties on his farm but it was proving impossible. The locals were too lazy, he said, and wouldn’t turn up once they’d spent a day in the fields. Workers from other countries came in, worked hard and were far more reliable.

As a student, after making about £30 in two backbreaking mornings based on what’s called “piece rates” – what you earn depends on the weight of food harvested – I gave up and went to work on a building site. I haven’t eaten gooseberries since.

These are different times: seasonal workers from Bulgaria, Romania and the like can’t travel here, whilst people at home have lost their jobs and are desperate to pay the bills (and, in many cases, feel valued). But the work has not changed.

Nowadays, farmers also have to factor in the national minimum (or living) wage and will calculate a “fair rate” to allow an average worker to hit the minimum wage rates. But herein lies the problem: recruiting an army of people who have never done this work could see many fall short (in some cases far short) of the picking rate required for them to make a minimum wage. Training and guidance will help – as will fine weather and fervour. But it is farmers that will have to meet any gap between the piece rate pickers earn and the hourly wage they are legally entitled to. Any additional costs in this year’s harvest will be difficult to pass on.

Labour typically accounts for half of soft fruit growers’ costs of production. These are rising year-on-year but prices have remained pretty static, so a number of tactics have been employed to improve productivity. Average yields have shot up 125% between 1996 and 2015, with polytunnels, new varieties and the use of artificial growing substrate all playing a part. “Few other sectors in UK agriculture or horticulture have achieved the levels of yield improvements seen in UK soft fruit growing, in particular for the strawberry crop,” notes an industry report that highlighted the impacts of Brexit on this valuable seasonal workforce.

Robotic pickers are some way off, and only currently in development for strawberries, which means this sector remains reliant on people. Skilled people: those with dexterity, efficiency and speed will, I am sure, go home achy, yet happy with their picking pay packet. But new recruits will take time to get up to speed. An experienced picker can work three times faster than a novice, says SFT’s Eldridge, and it can take many months to achieve the same level of knowledge, acuity and physical fitness. So, if labour costs rise, will the supermarkets, or indeed shoppers, be prepared to pay more?

I doubt it. And so it’ll be growers left to foot the bill. As one asparagus farmer suggested on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme last week, he rarely has the need to make up any shortfall; in fact most pickers he uses will exceed the minimum wage rates (around £10 to £12 per hour, against a minimum of £8.20 for those aged 21 to 24), and some earn “considerable bonuses” (such super-pickers are a sight to behold). This year that could change: it’ll come down to how much money we are prepared to put into it, the grower admitted.

Whether Brits are prepared to put their back into this work we will soon find out. Perhaps hospitality workers, many of which are of course from elsewhere in the EU, will relish the fresh air and physical exercise (not to mention the competition between pickers); better that than a small, hot, stuffy kitchen or being shouted at by customers because the avocadoes weren’t suitably smashed? Many of these workers also come from a sector that relies on people that work incredibly hard and get paid very little. Farming is much the same. And even if these workers provide a short-term fix, the insight they gain into the work that goes into putting a punnet of strawberries on the shelf will be invaluable. Indeed, the reputation of farmers and their workforce could well be enhanced amongst the hospitality leaders of tomorrow.

But what happens if their old job becomes available sooner rather than later? Where will that leave farmers and the fruit and crops in their fields? Indeed, this labour shortage is not just a problem for 2020: it has, as the editor of Farmers Guardian put it last week, been a challenge for some time now. “As attitudes towards agriculture have shifted and what British workers are willing to be paid for has also changed, it is foreign workers who have often showed the right attitude to prosper in these sectors,” Ben Briggs wrote in his leader column.

Covid-19 means the Bulgarians and Romanians won’t be here this year, but who knows what impact the virus and Brexit will have on their availability in the longer-term. The focus now is, quite rightly, on this summer’s strawberries but it has exposed far deeper and longer standing issues with our supply of fruit and vegetables. Those amongst the 26,000 new recruits arriving on farms this month will, as I did in 1997, quickly realise this. Hopefully they’ll have more staying power than me.


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