Farmers are being forced to leave millions of apples, and many other fruits and vegetables, rotting in orchards and fields because of a shortage of workers.
One hundred tonnes of fruit has gone unpicked in Britain already this season, meaning more than 16 million apples so far have been left to rot at the peak of harvest season due to a Brexit-led employment slump.
EU workers, who make up a reported 99 per cent of the seasonal picking workforce, are increasingly choosing to work in countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany because of the weakening of the pound and confusion over visa regulations.
The National Farmers’ Union, which carried out the survey that provided the figures, believes that British farmers could be hit hard financially in the run-up to Christmas, with popular winter vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnips and broccoli left unpicked.
Farmers are experiencing a 16 per cent shortfall in the seasonal workforce, according to the survey, and industry experts believe that the country would need 70,000 workers to plug the gap.
Ali Capper, chairwoman of the NFU’s horticultural board and an apple producer, said that she had never seen crop wastage like it. She added: “It’s a train crash. Last year we didn’t have these issues. This year there’s already wastage of 16 million apples.”
Hannah Trefgarne, a grower in Ledbury, Herefordshire, said that she had lost up to 87,000 punnets of raspberries this season because of a lack of EU workers. She told ITV that her farm was short of 100 pickers.
Another farmer in Scotland said that they had been forced to leave eight tonnes of class one strawberries — those that are the perfect shape, colour and smell — to rot.
Ms Capper fears there is a great risk that the crisis could lead to winter food shortages in supermarkets. She said: “With the root-crop harvest approaching there may not be enough carrots, parsnips, sprouts or broccoli at Christmas.”
In the past farms have relied on eastern European workers, particularly from Bulgaria, to carry out the seasonal picking and packing. With British unemployment at a record low, farms have found it nearly impossible to attract local workers, either.
The NFU said that it had lobbied the government repeatedly to address the issue and increase the number of work permits granted to non-EU seasonal workers from 2,500 to 70,000.
The government said that a two-year seasonal workers pilot scheme, which has created a new immigration subcategory, was “designed to test the effectiveness of our immigration system at alleviating seasonal labour shortages during peak production periods”.
A spokesman added: “We are actively engaging with the wider agricultural sector on the future system and the home secretary has commissioned the independent Migration Advisory Committee to consider a points-based system.”