Many growers have left crops in the field due to lack of labour

The UK is moving inexorably towards the inclusion of more fresh fruit & vegetables in our diet. Organisations like the RSA argue we should commit to increasing domestic supplies of fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses and include them more in everyday foods after Brexit. But the view down on the farm looks very different.

The NFU has been monitoring the labour availability situation over several years and the position has been worsening. But the warnings have gone largely unheeded. The seasonal workers pilot scheme is a positive move, but the numbers are just too low to counteract the damage being done by the ongoing uncertainty around future access to the UK. This year, more so than any other, I have spoken to growers who have left crop in the field due to lack of labour, or have reduced production capacity.

Where should growers go from here? Longer term, the solution will lie in technology. In years to come, the sight of robotic pickers trundling up and down our orchards could become a familiar one. Across the globe, technologists are grappling with the challenges needed to provide an alternative to the human picker.

The UK is not alone in facing a shortage of people to harvest its fruit & veg. Most developed economies face similar staffing shortages. So, the goal of gradually phasing out our reliance on humans and replacing them with automated systems capable of operating 24/7 is one we share with fruit & veg growers everywhere.

Automated harvesting may also prompt a rethink on the operation of our supply chains. Automation will be expensive. Unlike labour, where volumes can be increased or decreased depending on the crop and the season, investment in automation will be a fixed cost. Uncertainty over future supply contracts and prices won’t be conducive to making this level of investment. Growers need to have confidence in their customer base if they are spending these sums of money. But until robotics are operationally and economically fit for purpose, we will continue to rely on humans.

In the current economic climate, margins in fresh produce are simply too thin to take a chance on planting crops if the possibility of not harvesting them exists. The announcement of the seasonal workers pilot scheme was a welcome step in the right direction. The industry successfully operated the old SAWS for many years before it was scrapped by the last coalition government. Under the scheme, numerous students outside the EU (as it was then), got the chance to work in the UK for a season, before returning to their country of origin to resume their studies.

So, what is the answer? The sector is pressing for an immediate increase in numbers under the pilot scheme for the 2020 season. But we also need a recognition that the UK economy, at lots of levels, will continue to rely on non-UK labour for its success. And sectors like mushrooms need a longer-term solution. The crop needs pickers 52 weeks a year and the cost of training staff to the required level demands a more permanent type of employee. In the absence of local labour, recruiting staff from overseas is the only solution.

There are significant opportunities to increase the UK production of fruit & vegetables but in the short term, access to labour is critical. If we fail to address the issue, not only will we lose valuable productive capacity here in the UK, but we will start exporting our fresh produce industry to other parts of the world. Surely that was not what Brexit was supposed to be about.