The NFU is calling on the government to take ’immediate action’ over asparagus production concerns

UK asparagus production could end in just two years’ time unless the growing labour crisis is addressed, a leading grower has warned.

In a report for wholesaler Reynolds, Cobrey Farms partner Chris Chinn warned the government’s “no plan” for a hard Brexit could have severe ramifications.

“If nothing is done, it is likely that UK asparagus production will stop in the same year, as we simply won’t have the labour needed,” he said.

“This is causing real concern at the moment and some asparagus growers are holding off expansion plans. Asparagus is a long-term crop, with a growing life of 10 years, so uncertainty about the long-term future of the sector is undoubtedly going to impact on business decision making.”

The Reynolds report cited ONS statistics which showed net migration to the UK dropped by 25% to 246,000 in the 12 months to March 2017, with some 5% of fall in numbers a result of fewer migrants from Eastern Europe entering the country.

“This is important for the agri-food sectors, as it is often workers from these countries that work on farms and in food processing sites,” said Sion Roberts a senior partner at consultancy European Food and Farming Partnerships.

Only last month, the OC&C/Grocer annual study of the largest 150 UK food & drink suppliers found there was a “dramatic drop” in applicants from the EU this year, resulting in a high-season labour shortage of around 10%-15%.

Chinn, who is also chair of the Asparagus Growers’ Association and supplies M&S with asparagus, added that the vegetable was a labour-intensive crop.

“There is virtually no mechanisation due to the way that the crop is grown,” he said. “As such, we can find recruiting enough workers a challenging situation.”

It comes as a new survey by the NFU revealed there was a 29% shortfall in seasonal farm workers in September, raising the average shortfall for the year to 11%.

The NFU is calling on the government to take “immediate action” over the shortfall to prevent “significant disruption” to the supply chain next year.

NFU deputy president Minette Batters said: “The situation for farms has become a lot more challenging and farmers are already experiencing the serious effects a lack of workers can have on a business, with some being forced to not harvest crops.”

The survey found the number of returning workers to farms fell to 16%, its lowest level all year.

Batters said a “tried and tested” seasonal agricultural workers scheme for non-EU workers should be adopted to top-up numbers.

“Post-Brexit, we need to see an immigration policy that is based on fact and business need and recognises the importance and seasonality of workers across all skill levels,” he added.