Good weather in early spring has produced a bumper crop of strawberries in need of harvest. But many of Britain’s farmers are struggling to find fruit pickers for this year’s harvest due to tensions caused by Brexit.
In recent years, most produce pickers in the UK have come from Romania and Bulgaria. Brexit has made many Eastern European workers feel less welcome and this, linked with the reduced value of sterling (many workers send their money home) is encouraging them to work on farms in European member states instead. Germany has recently introduced incentives for pickers to work on their farms, so now there is now little appeal picking fruit in the UK by comparison.
This shortage of workers is causing fruit farms to rethink how to recruit staff. Some British farms are looking to pay higher wages than rival farms, but the cost versus waste balance is a fine one, and we expect an increase in the cost of UK soft fruit this year.
Some framers are looking elsewhere for workers. The Home Office predicts around 80,000 fruit picking positions will need to be filled by foreign workers in the UK this year. In order to tackle this issue, the government has released a pilot scheme allowing fruit and vegetable farmers to employ 2,500 Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan workers for seasonal work for up to 6 months. This scheme doesn’t address the shortage of workers, but could suggest a change to increasingly sourcing labour from outside Europe.
Finally, developments in technology may yet offer a solution to worker shortages. A new machine being trialled can collect 25,000 raspberries every day, compared to a human’s 15,000. Whilst technological development is expensive, it should allow a lower-cost and stable long-term solution to production.