Labour availability and cost has been one of the biggest issues facing our industry for years. A situation made worse by Brexit, Covid-19, and now the political situation in Europe, growers and their representatives have been trying to get politicians, particularly those within Defra and the Home Office, to see the bigger picture and explain that this is a complex issue, and one that cannot simply be solved by paying UK workers higher rates of pay.
In the past growers have listened incredulously as Defra ministers George Eustice and Victoria Prentice both harked back to a previous age when “grannies from the village” would come and pick fruit on their family farms. The disconnect between government dogma on immigration and pay rates, and the reality of today’s highly efficient horticultural industry would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.
While the policy-making departments continue to be deliberately blind when it comes to the issue, at least some politicians have got the message. The recent report by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) cross-party committee doesn’t pull its punches, concluding that the government’s lack of trust in, and failure to engage with, the industry over warnings of labour availability last year contributed to the shortages experienced by farmers and growers.
The report also points out what the industry has been saying for years: without an immediate change in policy the situation will only get worse, saying, “The government must change its attitude to the sector, trusting it and acting promptly when it raises concerns.” It also highlights that this is not a problem that is unique to the UK. Around the world countries are struggling to recruit seasonal agricultural workers from traditional sources. The difference is that other countries acknowledge the problem and are trying to some up with solutions, from labour quotas to tax breaks.
With increasing issues over labour combining with record input prices, continuing price pressures from major customers and retailers, and higher commodity prices, many vegetable crops look increasingly less attractive this year as planting continues. A reduction in domestic production seems highly likely for many crops, particularly those such as brassicas and salads which are still heavily reliant on manual harvesting.
However, despite the outlook and the supply chain shortages seen earlier in the pandemic, Defra seems oblivious to the potential for further disruption. This government has repeatedly shown what is at best a disregard for food and farming policies, and at worst outright hostility to agriculture and horticulture. Defra’s platitudinous response to the EFRA labour report suggests that it still doesn’t understand the potential seriousness of food shortages.
One man who would have grasped the issue is Henry Plumb, who sadly passed away last month aged 97. The former NFU president and Conservative MEP – who served as President of the European Parliament between 1987 and 1989, was known for his continual interest in and defence of British agriculture. After his retirement from politics, he continued to support young entrants to the farming industry and maintained many links and friendships at all levels and will be sorely missed by the many who knew him.
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