Plum harvest. Farmers hands with freshly harvested plums

As we approach the height of summer, the issue of finding seasonal workers is becoming particularly pertinent for soft fruit producers – who is going to gather in those peaches, pears and plums this year?

Fruit picking is, by its nature, a seasonal job and we are probably all very alive to the anecdotal stories that British workers aren’t prepared to take on a role which is seen as being labour intensive and low paid.  If that’s true and if the anticipated drop in seasonal workers from Europe is borne out as predicted, what might that mean for British farmers and fruit growers?

Should they just pay more?

The popularly held view is that the pay of fruit pickers is so low that only impoverished Eastern Europeans would want to work for it.  Not only is that view driven by cultural stereotypes, it also fails to acknowledge that in reality, the average wage for fruit pickers is generally reported to be at or just above the National Living Wage (currently £7.50 per hour).  Fruit pickers are often paid productivity bonuses based on piece work and get subsidised accommodation so it doesn’t seem to be quite as simple as paying more money.

On a broader level, however, the recently published Taylor Review on Modern Working Practices included in its recommendations that workers without guaranteed hours should receive a higher rate of pay, so it may be that this broader review of the so-called ‘gig economy’ will have repercussions within this particular sector.

Even if it pays alright, isn’t it just that the work is too hard?

The other commonly used explanation for a lack of interest from British workers is that the work is very demanding.  There’s probably no getting around that there are challenging aspects of agricultural work.  We’re not yet at a point where soft fruit picking can be mechanised, but to avoid fruit and vegetables rotting in fields and food producers facing the same kinds of challenges as dairy producers, we need to find a way to start addressing the current uncertainty in the agricultural sector.

Farming in the city?

Fifty years ago, working on the land was much more common than it is today and there has undoubtedly been a shift in the kinds of environment the working population thinks it will end up in.  It is anticipated that by 2030, over 90% of the UK’s population will live in an urban environment.  Consequently people will largely be looking for work in those towns and cities, not in rural areas where fruit picking jobs are based.  If they have families and personal commitments, that’s going to cut their motivation for relocating even further.

Clearly farmers can’t move their farms into the city but there perhaps needs to be a broader perception shift in what working on the land is like and why, in fact, it should be an option British workers give serious consideration to.  Farmers and fruit growers have an important part to play in that and in overriding long-held stereotypical views.

Does it have to be a short term contract?

It’s argued that British workers would prefer a permanent job with potential for career growth and personal development.  We don’t see why that should apply only to British workers and in fact, at a time when recruitment is likely to get increasingly difficult and expensive, it’s surely in all business’ interests to try and recruit for the longer term, whatever the nationality of their workers.

We’ve recently written on the growth and likely increased importance of apprenticeships and it seems to us that one way of looking to overcome these problems is for the sector to take the initiative and look to educate people about what opportunities there might be within agriculture.  It’s still quite common for young people to leave university and travel to, for example, Australia to work on farms over there – the sector needs to work on presenting the fun side of fruit picking and farm working in this country so that it can capture that demographic.  Young people want to get on the ladder, to be able to earn their own money and, ultimately, buy their own house.  By increasing its outreach and working with schools and colleges, this could be a great opportunity to start harnessing some home-grown talent.

Brexit negotiations will be important

However, with UK unemployment at its lowest level since 1975 and the National Farmers’ Union reporting 1,500 unfulfilled vacancies on British farms in May alone, it seems clear that we are going to need measures that continue to allow European workers to come to Britain for seasonal work.  There is talk of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme being re-introduced.  The previous scheme ended in 2013 and Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton & Honiton, is leading calls for a debate in Westminster on the reintroduction of the scheme, which he believes could work in tandem with an immigration model that would allow for controlled movement for those with a job.

What is clear is that it’s essential for all interested parties, from farmers to representative groups and local councillors and MPs, to work together to find a solution to what could become an increasingly significant problem with repercussions not just for food producers but for those who rely on what those producers grow within their own businesses.