fruit picking workers

A survey of growers by the farming union found that this year’s harvest had been ‘significantly impacted’ by the sector’s ongoing labour crisis

More than £60m-worth of fresh produce has gone to waste in the first half of 2022 as a result of the fruit & veg sector’s chronic labour shortages, new data from the NFU has shown.

A survey of 199 growers across England and Wales by the farming union found that this year’s harvest had been “significantly impacted” by the sector’s ongoing labour crisis, with “not enough people to pick the crops”.

In addition to concerns over soaring on-farm costs and the impact of drought conditions on farms across the country, the survey showed that growers had been forced to waste £22m-worth of fruit & veg directly due to workforce shortages in the first six months of the year. Given how the survey represented about a third of the UK’s  horticulture sector, the NFU therefore estimated the total amount of produce that had gone to waste, or had been unpicked, was in excess of £60m.

The findings comes as the horticulture sector has been forced to source seasonal labour from as far away as Indonesia this year due to the impact of the war in Ukraine on its workforce – with Home Office data showing two thirds of the UK’s Seasonal Worker visas issued in 2021 went to Ukrainian workers, followed by Russia in second place.

It follows an extension to the government’s Seasonal Worker scheme at the end of last year to 2024, with farms having access to 30,000 visas and an additional 10,000 if required. Some 38,000 visas had now been made available, the NFU said.

But despite this extension, growers still faced average worker shortages of 14% against normal staffing levels, with 40% suffering crop losses due to a lack of labour.

A further 56% of respondents reported a fall in production due to these issues – averaging out at a 19% reduction in yields across all businesses. Growers expected a further fall in production of 4.4% in 2023 due to the same issues with labour, the NFU said.

And of the staff that were recruited, growers endured a loss of 9% who left their contracts early, while 17% of those recruited did not turn up for work at all.

The results demonstrated “the detrimental impact workforce shortages are having on the food and farming sector, resulting in significant crop losses at a time when the country is experiencing the worst cost of living crisis in generations”, the union added.

“It’s nothing short of a travesty that quality, nutritious food is being wasted at a time when families across the country are already struggling to make ends meet because of soaring living costs,” said NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw.

“At the same time, the prolonged dry weather and record temperatures have created a really challenging growing environment for our fruit & veg. Every crop is valuable – to the farm business and to the people whose plates they fill. We simply can’t afford to be leaving food unpicked.”

With the demand on the Seasonal Workers scheme expected to increase again next year, it was “vital the scheme has the capacity to facilitate the people the sector needs to pick, pack and process the country’s fruit & vegetables”, Bradshaw added, pointing to how its current capacity did not meet the requirements of the sector. The NFU is calling for the scheme to be open to 70,000 workers.

“This means increasing the number of visas available to meet the sector’s needs and expanding it to a minimum of a five-year rolling scheme to enable growers to have confidence to invest in their businesses – particularly given growth in the horticultural sector is a government ambition set out in the National Food Strategy.”

The survey demonstrated “just how crucial it is for fruit & veg growers to have access to the workforce they need”, Bradshaw said.

“Expanding the Seasonal Workers scheme will play a vital role in enabling that access and ensuring we don’t see this devastating level of food waste next year.”