Can a labour crisis be averted in the UK berry industry?

Failure to secure sufficient supply of seasonal labour would not only cripple Britain's thriving soft-fruit industry but would hit affordability and availability of a healthy everyday food, according to a report by agricultural consultancy Andersons Midlands for industry body British Summer Fruits (BSF).

Image: HW
Image: HW

The Impact of Brexit on the UK Soft Fruit Industry warns that a failure to enable adequate recruitment to the sector "would have very significant implications for the UK consumer", for whom soft fruit now accounts for 22% of all fruit purchases.

Lower production and fewer businesses would mean "a significant reduction in UK self-sufficiency in a highly perishable product which, both economically and environmentally, should be produced as close to the point of consumption as possible", it says.

As well as the environmental impact of greater transportation, a resulting increase in soft-fruit imports would hit the UK’s balance of payments and reduce tax revenue from both employers and employees. Prices, meanwhile, would rise by an estimated 35-50%, according to soft-fruit marketers interviewed for the report, exacerbated by likely effects of weaker sterling and tariffs, so reducing consumption.

In 2015, some 28,000-29,000 seasonal workers were employed in UK soft-fruit production, it notes, adding: "Without imported EU labour, the growth in both the production and consumption of soft fruit in the UK over the last 20 years would not have been possible."

Labour typically accounts for half of soft-fruit growers’ costs of production and while the ongoing shift to growing in substrate rather than soil lowers the labour requirement per tonne of yield, the sector’s forecast rise in output by 2020 means that by then the seasonal worker requirement "will have increased to just over 31,000 employees".

It points out that the main increase by 2020 is expected to come in strawberry production, up 16% on 2015 to 134,000 tonnes, with 80% being grown in substrate systems. Other soft fruit will bring the total forecast UK soft-fruit production to 163,000 tonnes.

BSF chairman Laurence Olins told Horticulture Week that with Brexit negations just under way and Michael Gove newly appointed as Defra secretary, "the stars are in alignment" for the report to have an impact. "At long last we have a heavyweight at Defra who after a reversal in his career will be keen to get back and make his mark, and what he has said so far is encouraging."

Olins, who has already talked with Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, adds that the report is also being distributed to senior civil servants in several Government departments as well as to the heads of the main supermarkets.

"The Government says that in the Brexit talks the economy comes first, and we should hold them to that," says Olins. "They can’t now turn around and say ‘is 15,000 workers enough?’ as we have the evidence, from a highly reputable source, that it isn’t."

If the report’s warnings are not heeded, he adds: "The alternative is simply that growers will go where the labour and the land is. We already have enterprising UK growers growing raspberries and blueberries on the continent." He also urged other crop sectors to take the opportunity to make a detailed case for their own labour requirements.

Why robotics is not the (full) answer

"There are machines in development for the robotic picking of strawberries which are at the prototype stage [but] extensive use on a commercial scale seems unlikely before 2020," the Andersons report notes.

Even if successful, such systems "are unlikely to have a significant effect on the seasonal labour requirement" by 2020, and even thereafter, because not only can they just pick strawberries in substrate systems (not other crops) but harvesting represents only about 45% of all seasonal labour costs in soft fruit, the rest being required for crop establishment, husbandry, management of "overings", grading and packing. Indeed the report identifies 16 separate husbandry tasks, none of which are currently amenable to automation.

Olins says: "Robotics is something that gets thrown at us [as an alternative to labour] but it isn’t yet proven, and even when it is, it can only take the place of a small part of the labour required in the soft-fruit industry."

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