Millions of lettuces could be left to rot in fields because of a shortage of pickers, with the waste potentially serving as a glimpse of things to come post-Brexit, farmers say.
Travel restrictions introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19 in the UK are preventing seasonal pickers from around Europe entering the country to pick crops just as the harvest season for lettuces and berries begins.
Dependent on EU pickers
Farmers believe the current situation could be a “taste” of what might come after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December, and freedom of movement for EU citizens to come to Britain ceases.
The UK is heavily reliant on seasonal farm workers from abroad, with an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 people needed between April and October each year to plant, pick and pack the produce. The overwhelming majority of workers come from Eastern Europe, most just for the season before returning home, while Britons make up just one per cent of that number.
Furloughed workers stepping in?
However, with most flights grounded, only about a third of the migrant workers who would normally be in Britain are here, having arrived before lockdown began, the Environment Secretary said last month.
At the time, George Eustice suggested that furloughed British workers could be encouraged to take second jobs as fruit and vegetable pickers to help farmers during harvest.
"We are working with industry to identify an approach that will encourage those millions of furloughed workers in some cases to consider taking a second job, helping get the harvest in in June," Mr Eustice said.
Farmers in limbo
"Normally we would have 12 to 16 Polish workers here in the spring. Only four of our team made it, and they arrived before lockdown," said Ali Capper, who grows apples and hops - a key ingredient for beer - with her husband at their family farm in Worcestershire, in the West Midlands.
"For the harvest in September we will need about 70 people. I don't know where they're going to come from at the moment,” she added.
Post-Brexit state of affairs
Next month, one million heads of lettuce will need to be picked in Britain every day, then trimmed and transported to supermarkets. Without the necessary workforce, crops could be left to rot and growers may eventually decide to move some of their operations overseas, farmers have warned.
"It may be a foretaste of what next year will look like," said Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association.
"Except that if the economy picks up again, we'll get to the situation where there isn't even the unemployment to make good the shortfall of people coming from Eastern Europe. We'll have to move production to where the workers are."
One large salad producer, G's Growers, resorted to booking a £40,000 charter flight to fly in 150 Romanian workers in April to pick the vegetables and help train less experienced recruits.
The company that operated that flight said it has fielded many similar calls from other British farms desperate for labour. Since mid-April, Air Charter Service has flown in 1,200 passengers from Romania to meet the needs of farms, said Matt Purton, director of commercial jets for the company.
Mr Eustice has said he is “acutely aware” of the issue. says it is acutely aware of the problem, and was working with industry to find a way to recruit the necessary amount of people.
In February Mr Eustice announced the expansion of the Government’s seasonal workers programme, allowing farmers to hire up to 10,000 non-EU temporary workers in 2020, up from 2,500 last year.