The impact of Brexit has sent the fruit industry into decline, a leading grower has revealed.
Members of the UK Trade and Business Commission called in on fruit producer and packaging firm Winterwood Farms in Maidstone to learn about the problems facing the industry.
And the company’s managing director Stephen Taylor didn’t pull his punches on the impact of our departure from the European Union.
Mr Taylor said: “If you think back 20 years, much of the soft fruit on sale during the summer was imported, they were even selling Dutch strawberries at Wimbledon.
“But the industry had turned that around and reached the point when not only were we meeting British demand, but we had also begun exporting soft fruit to the Continent.
“It was a great success story. Then came Brexit.”
Mr Taylor said the problems faced since then, with an inability to recruit seasonal fruit-pickers and the increased paperwork required to export had not only stopped the industry’s expansion, but had begun to send it into decline.
He said: "In 2020, we coped. There was the lockdown and a lot of people had been furloughed and so we were able to recruit British workers to replace the East European seasonal workers we could no longer bring in.
"They had the right work ethic and we got all the fruit picked, but it was more costly because they took longer. We had a real cross-section of people from all kinds of jobs, but even with the best will in the world, they didn't have the skills to be as fast as our regular workers."
But he said: "Last year, many of those people had gone back to their regular jobs after furlough. We did retain about a third, mostly students and the like, but come September they wanted to take a couple of weeks off before going back to college. September is a peak time for us and the result was that 8% of our fruit remained unpicked."
Mr Taylor complained that the government's "solution" was simply that the industry should pay higher wages to attract British staff.
He said: "That's just not a possibility. Our pickers already earn a good wage - £120 to £150 a day perhaps - they're not on the minimum wage of years gone by.
"But there's a limit to what we can pay because we still have to compete with fruit growers abroad."
He said: "There were figures last month showing that there were more vacancies in the UK than people to fill them. There is very little unemployment and where the unemployed mainly are is not usually close to a fruit farm."
He said the East European seasonal workers they employed were generally aged 18 to 25 and prepared to live in temporary accommodation.
He observed: "For them, going to a foreign country, it's all part of a big adventure."
British workers weren't prepared to do that.
"Only a small proportion of those unemployed in the UK are in that 18 to 25 category and prepared to move to the job. Understandably, because of course older people have their homes and families to consider.
"In the Maidstone area, there are around 4,000 people unemployed - that includes a number who are just unemployable and others who are not really unemployed but are in between switching jobs.
"Now consider that Winterwood and the other five big fruit growers in the area probably employ about 4,000 people between us and you begin to get an idea of the problem."
Mr Taylor admits he did not vote for Brexit, but he said the problems were easily fixed.
He said: "Just as with the shortage of tanker drivers a short time ago, the Government has simply not taken the necessary action to prepare the country. That crisis was entirely predictable and foreseen and so is the shortage of seasonal labour."
At present, the Government is allowing 30,000 seasonal workers to enter the country each summer. They go to flower growers, nurseries and poultry farms as well as the fruit industry. Mr Taylor said that limit needed to be increased to 120,000.
Mr Taylor said: "It could be done easily, the visa system is already in place. It only needs the number altered."
Mr Taylor said: "I know that Brexit was all about 'taking back control' and that people were genuinely worried about the pressures of immigration on things like hospitals, school places and housing.
"But I don't think they were worried about seasonal workers. These people come, pick for the season and go home.
"It suits us and it suits them. And it's actually good for international relations."