In the most recent development, Faversham & Mid Kent MP Helen Whately, who chairs the recently formed All-Party Parliamentary Group for Fruit & Vegetable Farming, said during a debate she called on the subject on 30 November: "One thing that all growers are worried about is access to labour, particularly since our decision to leave the EU."
She said the British Growers Association estimates that the horticulture industry employed 80,000 seasonal workers this year and forecasts that need will increase to 95,000 by 2019.
"It is getting harder for farmers to recruit seasonal workers," added Whately. She said the NFU's end-of-season labour survey found that in 2015 nearly a third of growers experienced problems recruiting workers and 69 per cent of growers expect the situation to get worse by 2018.
MPs including Sir Henry Bellingham, Julian Brazier, Seema Kennedy, David Simpson, Jo Churchill, Gregory Campbell, Julian Sturdy, Nigel Huddleston, Mike Weir, Angela Smith, Scott Mann, Jim Shannon, Tom Tugendhat, Victoria Prentice, Rupa Huq and Helen Grant echoed her view.
Responding, immigration minister Robert Goodwill said the issue is a "long-standing one", adding: "I understand the position of the farming community and I absolutely appreciate the importance of food and farming industries as a crucial component of the UK economy and of the fabric of rural Britain." He said the Government "would give careful consideration to the needs of the agricultural sector" in negotiations with the EU.
Goodwill noted that the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme ended after more eastern European nations joined the EU. "I know there are concerns that the UK's impending exit from the EU, or even the fall in the value of sterling, might lead to an immediate shortage of labour as EU workers go home, although the data do not support that so far," he pointed out.
He said there are 129,000 more workers from the eight countries that joined the EU in 2004 in the UK in the third quarter of 2016 compared with a year earlier. "The Government wish to ensure that any decisions we take on the short-term need for seasonal migration schemes do not pre-empt future decisions about how the immigration system will work post-Brexit," he added.
Speaking at last week's Chartered Institute of Horticulture (CIH) conference, Anthony Snell of leading berry grower AJ & CI Snell said using tabletop growing has halved labour costs. But he added: "Our biggest issue in horticulture is we need people to come and pick our crops."
Snell said he was "encouraged" by a meeting with Defra secretary Andrea Leadsom in November where she withdrew previous comments she made at this autumn's Conservative Party conference on "just getting Brits to do all the work" and said she was trying to get a type of worldwide Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) going. Snell said a scheme is an "economic no-brainer", but said he was disappointed with Goodwill's commitment to only "reflect" on a new SAWS scheme.
The Ornamentals Round Table group met Defra last week with labour high on the agenda. HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin said: "I don't think the Government know what it's going to do," he said. "It's too early to tell. But I can't see horticulture and agriculture missing out on what is a vital labour supply. Is the UK Government going to shoot itself economically? But I don't know what pressures they're under. If we are going to join a single market by law we have got to accept free movement of people. But that's why most people wanted to leave."
Defra is working on the number of migrant numbers in horticulture and overall employment too, which Curtis-Machin said could be "a lot more" than the 300,000 estimated.
Binsted Nurseries' Martin Emmett said in the CIH James Bruce lecture last week that more industry automation is required and he is "very worried about staff to operate our businesses". He added: "With a 1.3 per cent unemployment rate on the south coast we need migrant labour. Brexit has created a lot of fallout in the East European population, many of whom have become established in the UK."
West Sussex Growers Association consultant John Hall said: "There's a huge amount of fear if they say 'right, no more migrant labour from SAWS'. Many of these jobs have become almost year-round jobs. If we lose these people we don't know what we'll do. There's 8,000 people in the industry in Chichester and Bognor and two-thirds are east European."
NFU president Meurig Raymond has called for "a substantial trial of a visa-controlled seasonal agricultural permit scheme". In a letter to the prime minister, co-ordinated by the NFU, 75 food and farming organisations have said the UK should have tariff-free access to the single market and continued access to migrant labour to flourish post-Brexit.
Signatories from the horticulture sector included Berry Gardens, BerryWorld, Branston Holdings, Cobrey Farms, Fresca Group, G's Growers, Hillier Nurseries, MH Poskitt, Monaghan Mushrooms, Neame Lea Nursery, Poupart Produce, Produce World Group, Puffin Produce, Valefresco and Withers Farm.
Defra is trying to count the number of foreign workers employed in the agriculture and horticulture industries in the UK to help inform the Government on its forthcoming decisions on limiting immigration.
The British Retail Consortium has called for "an early end to the uncertainty facing EU workers now residing in the UK and contributing to our economy", adding that 100,000-200,000 EU nationals work for British retailers.
A Defra spokesperson said: "The UK needs a fair and controlled immigration policy and that is exactly what this Government will deliver. We have been clear we want businesses to have the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the single market and to let European businesses do the same here."
- See also Policy seminar warned of labour crisis facing growers
- See our Brexit page for full coverage on the impact of the EU referendum on the horticulture sector