The UK's immigration policies need to acknowledge the importance of the foreign seasonal workers who are crucial to our fruit and vegetable harvest, says National Farmers' Union (NFU) East Anglia adviser Charles Hesketh.
Access to seasonal workers has been a challenge for horticultural businesses across our region for several years, a challenge only exacerbated by the EU referendum result, Covid and post-EU immigration policy.
As with any first world country, we rely heavily on skilled overseas workers to help bring in the harvest. Those looking for seasonal positions can come over and earn a good wage to take home and base their year around this source of income.
As an industry we have tried, particularly in the past five years, to significantly promote these roles to the UK labour market through various means such as job centres, social media and online sites with limited success.
This is primarily due to the high cost of UK living and the fact employees want year-round work and job security.
We are now seeing businesses reduce, or stop, their horticultural production as they cannot source the workers needed.
Following significant NFU lobbying, the government introduced the seasonal workers scheme in 2019 as a pilot for 2,500 visas. This was extended in 2020 to 10,000 then introduced as a full scheme in January 2022 to 30,000.
This may sound a lot, but the challenge is that the industry needs around 70,000 workers and the number of workers available through having settled status, having worked in the UK for five or more years, is decreasing.
So where does this leave the industry?
When questioned on food security in parliament, the prime minister has repeatedly championed our ability to produce more fruit and veg.
He is correct, we have a fantastic maritime climate, fertile soils and, although not without its challenges in East Anglia, access to water for crop irrigation. If anywhere in Europe can, and should be, producing more fruit and veg, it is here in the UK.
But it is the government’s aspiration for a high-skilled, high-wage workforce that is hampering that growth. Under our current immigration points-based system, the traditional route to access seasonal workers is extremely limited outside of the Seasonal Workers Scheme and this means production is shrinking, not increasing.
What’s more, for reasons we can’t fathom, the Home Office has announced an increase under the scheme of minimum payment of workers to £10.10 per hour. This is an increase from £8.91, at a time when retailers are wanting to "hold the line" on fresh produce prices, already often promoted as a loss leader in store.
Farmers and growers are expected to bear the brunt of this increase, which often makes up more than 50% of their production costs.
Having worked in and around horticulture production myself, I have witnessed the skills it takes to work the fields, polytunnels and glasshouses to help produce the best possible crop.
Often the picking is what grabs the headlines but the pruning of fruit, such as blueberry bushes, takes considerable time, not only to carry out, but to learn and develop the skills necessary.
It means that growers place enormous importance on returnees to their farms. Those with experience are key to passing on the skills to others and ensuring, in a high-volume low-margin industry such as fruit and veg, that businesses remain profitable.
Now growers face an additional challenge in the wake of the appalling crisis in Ukraine. Around 60% of last year’s seasonal workers under the scheme came from Russia and the Ukraine, many of them experienced returnees.
Labour providers are confident they can fill these vacancies, but this confidence is not being reflected on farm. Many growers have decided they cannot take the risk and are either leaving glasshouses empty or changing their field cropping plans.
If the government is serious about our farms producing more home-grown fruit and veg we need to go beyond rhetoric. We need an immigration policy that works for farmers and growers, support to counteract soaring input prices and for retailers to pay a fair price above the cost of production.
Otherwise, we will be growing less and importing more.