British farmers turn to homegrown force to bring in the harvest

With Covid-19 keeping eastern Europeans away, furloughed British workers are signing up to fill seasonal vacancies – but will there be enough of them?

Right now, Bruce Kerr is fretting about the shape of a certain curve – but not the one relating to the spread of Covid-19.

Kerr is an asparagus farmer in east Suffolk. In a good year he will harvest up to 500 tonnes of the highly prized vegetable, which requires urgent attention when the mercury rises.

“If we get hot temperatures we have to pick all at once,” Kerr explained. “We really need to flatten the curve.”

Normally, an all-hands-on-deck scenario would not be a problem. Kerr’s 100-plus-strong workforce of eastern Europeans would do the job.

But, like most farmers now, Kerr is largely bereft of Romanians and Bulgarians to pick his crop for a harvest that traditionally begins on St George’s Day and runs to Midsummer on 21 June.

The good news, though, is he is not bereft of workers. “I took to Twitter a few weeks ago and the floodgates opened,” he explains.

His offer of work was answered by furloughed chefs, hotel staff, students, landscape workers and musicians. They have come from Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds but Kerr is keen to recruit the majority of his new workforce from the local community.

“It’s a tough gig, some won’t stick with it,” Kerr acknowledged. “It’s not like Kent during the war with people picking apples and dancing. But we now have British people picking British asparagus. As of this weekend, we have 50 people picking asparagus who have never picked it before.”

Kerr can count himself one of the luckier ones.

Other farmers still have a mountain to climb when it comes to recruiting workers. Admittedly, there is still time. The main fruit and vegetable picking season does not begin until late May but the clock is ticking.

A spokesman for Angus Growers, a soft fruit producer on Scotland’s east coast, the heart of the country’s berry industry, said its recruitment drive has received more than 4,700 applications from 2,714 individual applicants. But, to date, only 141 had accepted a job and were in post, a conversion rate of around 5%.

“We do appreciate that berry picking is very hard work,” the spokesman said. “It’s a very physical job, and due to the nature of the industry, skill and speed are required in order to harvest berries quickly and efficiently once the fruit ripens. The reasons given for declining the roles are varied, but include the long hours, early starts, and the fact that these roles are contracted for a specific period of weeks which are not flexible.”

Feed the Nation, a drive to recruit British-based workers launched by the Alliance of Ethical Labour Providers, received nearly 50,000 applications of interest. Of those, just over 6,000 opted to complete an interview for a job. To date, 900 have rejected the job offered while 112 have taken one up.

“You can see that turning interest into actual applicants is pretty challenging, that’s why we are going to need to get tens of thousands of people interested in the work,” said NFU vice-president Tom Bradshaw.

“I think we’re nervous. But we’ve never been in this situation where we have the number of people available that we have now. There could be two million unemployed now and we’ve also got all of the university students who would maybe travel through the summer and now won’t be. So there is a large pool of people available who haven’t been previously. The picking vacancies for April have all been filled and that gives us some confidence we may well be able to fill the roles.”

In a bid to raise interest, the government will soon start promoting – an online campaign soft-launched earlier this month that aims to recruit more farm workers from within Britain.

“There’s been a huge amount of interest but the jobs aren’t really available until the end of May, beginning of June,” Bradshaw said.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by how many people are interested in doing it but we need to keep up that momentum as we head to peak recruitment.”

Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits, the industry body, said its campaign had attracted huge interest, too.

“Over a third of farms now have enough applicants for the roles they have available,” Marston said.

But that still leaves big gaps, despite the use of charter flights to bring in eastern European workers amid warnings crops would go unpicked.

At the end of March, there were only around 7,000 eastern European workers in Britain’s fields, according to Bradshaw – less than 10% of the total workforce that will be required over the year.

“There’s still a long way to go,” Bradshaw said. “It could well be we need 50,000 or 60,000 people.”

Alastair Brooks, who farms strawberries in Kent, has secured the 170-strong workforce he needs to pick his fruit. Many of his workers from eastern Europe arrived over the winter and avoided the lockdown.

“But talking to the rest of the industry, it’s a little bit mixed,” Brooks said. “A lot of people live in the south-east and if you are a sous chef you might think maybe this is all right for a few months. If you live in some of the more rural areas, then maybe they don’t have access to the same number of people.”

Other farmers face a different problem: their markets have disappeared.

“We normally harvest between 10 and 12 tonnes per year,” said Richard Morritt, who has been growing asparagus at Sand Hutton in Yorkshire for 21 years.

“Most of that harvest goes into the restaurant and hospitality trade. With a potential drop in sales, I may have to think about harvesting to what the demand is from my customers. Some fields I may not harvest this year. At least with asparagus, it being a perennial crop, the spears will develop into fern and grow out for this season. It will still be there next year to harvest again. If I’m standing still this year, it’s been a great year.”

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