Agriculture’s reliance on the skill and power of the human hand is nothing new.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) estimates that the horticulture sector alone needs 80,000 seasonal workers a year to plant, pick, grade and pack over nine million tonnes and 300 types of fruit, vegetable and flower crops in Britain. Furthermore, a combination of Brexit and Covid-19 has reduced the number of workers willing or able to travel to the UK, with unprecedented staff shortages not only in the fields but throughout the wider supply chain.
Writing in the third of a series of reports, titled ‘Vision for the Future of Farming’, the NFU says “both increasing the supply of labor from the domestic workforce, and identifying ways of improving efficiency, for example through more automated systems, can help agriculture continue to grow now and after Brexit”.
However, the organization adds that there are “good reasons” why access to a “reliable and competent” source of labor from outside the UK will continue to form an important part of the picture. Unlike generations before them, today’s British nationals generally are not attracted by many aspects of agricultural work, where it is sometimes unfairly seen as poorly paid, low skilled work lacking career prospects. This, combined with long hours in remote locations and involving physical work, means that many look for work elsewhere.
And according to agricultural consultant John Pelham, from the Andersons Centre, any assumption that the shortfall in requirement can be met by Brits overlooks the fact that a significant proportion of farm businesses are located in remote, rural areas. “These are some distance from centres of population, precluding daily travel for UK workers,” he explains. “With existing commitments to accommodation and family, how many can or will be prepared to leave home for temporary employment?
“The problem for the grower is that each new worker requires a significant investment in initial training and subsequent coaching. Furthermore, new employees need to gain experience before they can operate at a rate that is commercial - which can take up to a full season. In 2020 a number of UK growers found that, having made this initial investment, they lost UK workers when they acquired a permanent position elsewhere.”
Bruce Hartnett, managing director at Kernock, says: “We recruit locally, and we have a wonderful team comprised of many locally-based staff. The issue is that it takes a great deal of work and invested time and money to build up a good team and the seasonal nature of the business is that we need a large number of seasonal staff to start on a certain date for the period of the peak season and that is a challenge when only relying on the staff within the immediate local area who will often, understandably want a longer-term position.”
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