The National Farmers Union (NFU) has warned that unless action is taken to deal with the migrant labour shortage, crops in Lincolnshire fields could rot in the ground.
Lincolnshire produces about 40% of England’s bulb and flower crops and nearly 30% of its vegetables and salads. However, fears over Brexit and the future of immigration have left farmers concerned over an ever-expanding labour gap.
Alison Pratt, spokesperson for NFU East Midlands, said: “Lincolnshire is a fantastic county for producing food – significant investment has been made by farmers, packers and processors in bringing jobs and income to the county.
“All these crops need to be picked and packed, many by hand and so we rely on workers who can be flexible; many are non UK-born and live here all the year round, contributing to our communities in many different ways.”
Across the country, the horticulture sector employs 85,000 seasonal workers which includes people coming from Europe on work permits mainly for the UK harvest period.
The NFU have predicted that by 2020, the demand for these seasonal workers will increase to 95,000.
The UK food and drink sector employs 3.9 million people and is worth £108 billion to the economy each year.
Following the abolition of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (Saws), almost half of UK fruit and veg companies reported difficulties attracting workers last year, according to an NFU survey.
“Lincolnshire businesses employ probably tens of thousands of harvest, packing, processing and logistics staff in all areas of the food and farming industry (fish processing, too, in the Grimsby area),” Alison added.
“They are essential to the county’s economy, not just to the farming industry.
Without these workers, we could not grow these crops in Lincolnshire.
“We would then import them from abroad, so their supply would not be guaranteed and would not be to the same high quality standards; in effect we would export the whole industry abroad.
“The issue of where our labour comes from in future is not just about food production, but about the whole food chain from field to fork.”
With Brexit on the horizon, EU workers are feeling less welcome in the UK, according to NFU deputy president Minette Batters, and the drop in the value of sterling means workers coming to the UK are earning less money. She said:
This sector is in shock. Unless we can sort it out, we will have British fruit and veg rotting in the fields next year.
The NFU is now calling on the government to replace Saws with a visa-based global seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
Minette said that fruit and veg production had witnessed a “huge success story” in the UK and consumers now take it for granted that they would have an abundant supply of home-produced food.