The managing director of a Kent-based fruit grower and packer has said that politicians are out of touch with the industry during a visit to his business by members of the UK Trade and Business Commission.
Stephen Taylor of Winterwood Farms near Maidstone said that government policies and Brexit had sent a once expanding industry into decline. “If you think back 20 years, much of the soft fruit on sale during the summer was imported, they were even selling Dutch strawberries at Wimbledon,” he said. “But the industry had turned that around and reached the point when not only were we meeting British demand, but we had also begun exporting soft fruit to the Continent. It was a great success story. Then came Brexit.”
Mr Taylor complained that the government’s ‘solution,’ which is that the industry should pay higher wages to attract British staff, is simply not feasible. “Our pickers already earn a good wage – £120 to £150 a day perhaps – they’re not on the minimum wage of years gone by. But there’s a limit to what we can pay because we still have to compete with fruit growers abroad.”
He added, “There is very little unemployment and where the unemployed mainly are not usually close to a fruit farm. In the Maidstone area, there are around 4,000 people unemployed – that includes a number who are just unemployable and others who are not really unemployed but are in between switching jobs.
“Now consider that Winterwood and the other five big fruit growers in the area probably employ about 4,000 people between us and you begin to get an idea of the problem.”