While the industry welcomed news that the SAWS pilot has been extended, farmers are still concerned about how they will recruit enough workers in 2021.
One soft fruit farm in Dundee described the situation as ‘bleak’ now that they face having to cancel plant orders for 2021 if the Government doesn’t confirm how seasonal labour will be sourced.
“We need people from April through to November to pick strawberries and raspberries,” said David Porter who manages Balhungie farm in Dundee, where they grow 31 acres of strawberries, 14 acres of raspberries, 150 acres of potatoes and 600 acres of cereal crops. “I need around 120 seasonal workers and I usually start making arrangements for my staff in the autumn, but we’re not going to know about SAWS numbers by then. I have already ordered my plants for 2021 but I haven’t paid the deposit yet. If things stay the way they are I may have to cancel those orders. It’s as bleak as I have known it, to be honest.”
David, who was already concerned about the impact Brexit would have on his business, says the Government can’t wait until next year to confirm the SAWS scheme.
“Our season is already planned for next year. The Government can’t wait until then to let us know what’s going on. Autumn has to be the deadline!
“The cost of growing a soft fruit crop is so much larger than most other crops. It’s a big risk as we’re ordering plants and grow bags – and now we can’t guarantee we will have staff here to pick it. Cancelling plant orders is big consideration and a worst-case scenario but it’s something we will have to mull over in the next six months. As you get closer to autumn it’s going to get more and more worrying. It would be madness if the government don’t sort it out.”
It’s a situation that has also alarmed Low Moor Farm in York where owner Ronda Morrit is reviewing how they will cope in 2021 without guaranteed labour. The farm grows raspberries and asparagus and is ‘hopeful’ the government will be considering different immigration options for farms.
“If we don’t get the labour we need, we might not pick some fields for a year because it’s asparagus and we will come back to it the following year,” said Ronda when asked how the farm would cope without its team of workers. “I might see if York University students want some outdoor work!
“I am really hopeful that the Conservatives open their eyes to it though and recognise who picks our fruit and veg.”
While arguments rise about using English workers to pick fruit and vegetables, growers are doubtful this will work.
“I have been doing this job for more than 20 years and I have only ever had one English person approach me for seasonal work – and that was the other day,” said Ronda who has employed the person on her farm. “He started work straight away and so far so good. For me it would be cheaper and easier to employ English workers. At the moment I have to provide accommodation and facilities for overseas workers – and they live with us from March to October. I don’t think we would attract the numbers we need though.”
In Dundee, David believes using a British workforce would be impossible.
“Using local staff is a pipe dream. It sounds good in practice but it wouldn’t work. Back in the 80s we did this but things have moved on. It’s no longer a six week job that people did to supplement other income – now it’s for six months and we need a reliable workforce to deliver on our commitment to supermarkets.”
But David is concerned about the impact the lack of decision from the government will have on his local workforce.
“Local staff on my farm also depend on this decision. There are a lot of local people in this area that work in the soft fruit industry. If we lost most of the soft fruit industry in north east Scotland, the rural economy in Angus would be hit full on. People don’t realise how much benefit these workers bring – they bring a lot of good to the local economy.”
Both farms want to see the reintroduction of SAWS – but sooner rather than later.
Ronda said: “The SAWS trial is using people from outside of the EU and I think that’s fantastic if they carry on after the trial. I can’t see why this trial wouldn’t work and hopefully we can have people in through the SAWS scheme because that’s how it used to be and it worked very well.”
In the meantime, David is busy ensuring his seasonal teams are aware of the benefits of applying through the EU Settlement scheme.
“We are trying to make it easy as possible for our seasonal workers to apply for pre-settled and settled status,” said David. “We did it last year and we have quite a few on pre-settled status now. But even using that system there will still be a shortfall.
“This situation is one of the biggest challenges to my business right now. It’s a bit worrying.”
For more information about supporting your team to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme, see here.