The UK is facing a shortage of fruit and vegetable pickers this year.
By the end of April, 29,000 will be needed and one farmer, Mark Bowyer, told Farming Today he had only managed to get 13 of his regular staff so far.
“We’ve had inquiries from about 80 people including the local circus, who have been parked up with nothing else to do and want to have a go,” he said.
“I don’t know if it’s the jugglers and the clowns, but they’ve said they have got staff who can help us.”
Pickers must move around
Mr Bowyer said his farm normally directly recruits between 70 and 100 staff all from Eastern Europe, who work for 10 weeks harvesting asparagus.
One reason overseas workers are recruited for these picking roles is that they require temporary, flexible workers who need to move around the country following the crops.
It is often difficult for local people to fill these roles as they are extremely busy for a short space of time – for example, two months to pick apples – with no work for the rest of the year.
However, the closing of borders and grounding of aeroplanes because of the coronavirus outbreak has made it hard for overseas workers to reach the UK.
Mr Bowyer added: “We’ve had a lot of local inquiries and a lot of national inquiries from people who are prepared to travel for work.”
“Of those, I would think 70% is parents offering their sons and daughters who are home from college and university to come and work.”
Travel problems are not only affecting overseas workers – there are also issues in getting hold of imported fruit and vegetables.
“We grow across the world,” Mr Bowyer said. “We have quite a lot of vegetable crop in the Gambia. Traditionally everything that needs to come here on air freight would sit at the bottom of a passenger aeroplane.
“But with no passenger flights we’re having to resort to ships, which are too slow, or chartered aircraft and chartered freighters to go and collect this product, which is a dramatic increase in the normal cost of operation.”
He added that imports from Spain were taking twice as long to transport because restrictions meant trucks can only have one driver instead of the usual two.
‘Pick for Britain’
Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union said it was vital that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) got behind a UK recruitment campaign.
“We have to make sure we recruit these absolutely critical workers to enable us to put this fresh fruit and vegetables on the plate,” he said.
“We’ve seen them back other campaigns for other vital sectors and [Environment Secretary] George Eustice has said a lot how valued the food supply chain is at the moment.
“We’ve got to make sure those words really turn into action and we have this joint campaign where we try and recruit from the UK workforce.
“Many of them are unemployed there are a lot of students who are not able to be at university any more and we really need these people to step up and pick for Britain.”
The charity Concordia, which usually helps young people gain experiences abroad, has already signed up 14,000 people to its Feed the Nation scheme to help with picking. About 70% of them have never worked on a farm before.
They are mainly students but also carpenters, chefs and former service personnel. As new people arrive they will have to go into self-isolation for seven days before they are allowed to start work.
A scheme is also being put together with industry bodies British Summer Fruit and British Apples and Pears for fruit pickers.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 people are needed from mid-April to pick asparagus and 6-7,000 to pick lettuce. From the end of April that number rises to 29,000 to pick strawberries and later in the year, tens of thousands are needed to harvest apples, pears, cauliflowers and cucumbers.