Single use -  Lettuce harvesting

Britain’s fruit and veg industry will be “devastated” by the national living wage, growers warn, with margins already squeezed by the supermarket price wars set to be obliterated by the new rules.

The government’s plan for the national living wage - announced by the Chancellor last autumn - means workers earning the minimum wage of £6.70 per hour will benefit from a 50p pay rise from 1 April, followed by year-on-year increases which could take it above £9 per hour by 2020.

But with many growers operating in single-digit profit margins, the new scheme could have serious consequences for growers, said Martin Evans, MD of carrot grower Freshgro, which supplies about 90% of the UK’s Chantenay carrots to the mults.

“This is still a very labour-intensive sector, particularly at harvest times,” he said. “We already employ around 150 staff permanently, with more at big peaks, so our wage bill, which is already £2m a year, is going to grow significantly due to this change. Lots of growers are in a similar position and the prospect of the increase frightens us.”

Evans’ concerns were echoed by NFU president Meurig Raymond at the union’s conference this week in Birmingham. “It may be an admirable principle, but the wage has been introduced without proper consultation and clear explanation by politicians who have no understanding of how it is going to devastate Britain’s fruit & veg growers,” he warned.

Raymond urged environment secretary Liz Truss to look at how to reduce the impact on growers, and said the new rules could leave many of them “unprofitable in as little as three years”.

Prices within the sector were already static or being forced down due to supermarket price wars, added British Growers Association CEO Jack Ward.

“We are now seeing a massive additional cost increase for growers and no one knows where the money is going to come from,” he claimed. “We have had very little notice and room for manoeuvre from the government, and concessions on offer such as corporation tax relief will not affect many in the sector as they are not incorporated businesses.”

Speaking at the NFU conference, Truss said Defra, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, and the NFU were working together “to see about what we might be able to do” for the sector.