Supermarkets will struggle to fill their shelves with fruit and vegetables unless more people in Britain take up farm jobs this summer, the agricultural sector has warned.
Farmers need around 70,000 seasonal workers to make sure crops are picked throughout the year, most of whom usually arrive from the EU.
While a major hiring drive to ‘Feed the Nation’ during the coronavirus crisis has had more than 27,000 applicants, only around 4,300 of them have taken up the offer of an interview so far.
Recruiters say most farms have enough workers to last until mid-May but will need many more to cope with harvesting needs for the summer and beyond.
The president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Tom Bradshaw, told Metro.co.uk that growers are ‘extremely concerned’ about the impact of lockdown measures.
He welcomed new measures to allow furloughed workers to take second jobs but said his colleagues are ‘nervous’ the 70,000 figure won’t be hit.
Some recruiters are concerned that not enough applicants are serious about farm labour, or that the threat of being recalled from furlough makes it difficult to commit to long stints of work.
Others suggested applicants were ill-informed about how severe the shortages were, with many mistakenly believing that crops are already rotting in the ground.
Feed the Nation, run by three of the main agricultural recruiters, HOPS, Concordia and Fruitful Jobs, said around 90 per cent of applications have come from British citizens, and only 30 per cent have worked in farming before.
Efforts are being made by other recruiters and some farms continue to hire independently, but not enough data is available to indicate whether the 70,000 figure is on track to be hit.
Parts of the UK may be struggling with recruitment more than others, risking shortages of particular kinds of produce in supermarket aisles due to the way different regions produce more of certain crop types.
Fruitful Jobs, whose clients are mainly in the West of England, said they stand to have enough workers until the end of May and are optimistic about the number of applications they are receiving.
But HOPS and Concordia, which have more clients across a wider stretch of the UK, still need to fill vacancies from the start of May and are concerned about meeting their targets.
NFU’s Scottish branch today warned farms in Scotland are ‘extremely unlikely’ to find enough workers for the high season of fruit and vegetable picking.
Scotland accounts for almost 15 per cent of the UK’s seasonal workforce needs, yet is home to just 8 per cent of the population.
While recruiters praised the government’s decision to allow furloughed work
David Camp, chief executive of the Association of Labour Providers, welcomed the ‘surge’ in interest from domestic workers but said farms needed more people prepared to work for months at a time.
He told Metro.co.uk: ‘Whilst we appreciate the spirit in which people are volunteering, it does require time to train people up and the work is active and physical.
‘We want people to be serious if they are applying.’
The EU has urged member states to allow the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who help plant and harvest crops to cross borders despite travel bans to contain the virus.
Germany has announced it will let 80,000 seasonal farm workers, mainly from eastern Europe, into the country in April and May.
The workers will have to travel by air rather than bus, undergo medical checks and obey social distancing while working, while their accommodations can only house half as many people as normal.
Mr Camp added: ‘Where public health guidance allows for it, we would want experienced seasonal workers who have a legal right to work in the UK to be able to travel here and do that work.’
By Sam Courtney-Guy