Farming minister George Eustice defended the Government's introduction of the living wage and its abolition of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) to an audience of industry professionals at last month's Fruit Focus event in Kent.
"Most farms are on piece rate and many workers earn above the current national minimum wage (NMW)," he said. "Meanwhile, tabletop growing is bringing down the cost of labour in soft fruit. Our view is the living wage won't have a huge impact."
But NFU chief horticultural policy adviser Chris Hartfield said: "There is a huge amount of concern about this. Labour is often the greatest cost to a business and many are above NMW and getting on to living wage levels. The real effect will be in maintaining the difference between pay rates, which will put a huge burden on growers' businesses."
Growers face falling returns at the same time, said NFU horticulture board vice-chairman Ali Capper. "The talk with customers is not of holding prices but reducing them. An 11 per cent wage rise will be a significant blow for many growers."
Eustice responded: "The living wage is for over-25s so if you rely on student labour it won't apply to them. For over-25s, we need to overcome the problem of both taxing them and then giving them tax credits."
NFU vice-president Minette Batters added: "We are supportive of the living wage, though we didn't expect it."
On seasonal labour supply, Concordia director Mark Robinson said: "We still rely on East European workers but with the ending of SAWS and other employment opportunities opening up, we are already seeing a drop in the standard of workers. We are still able to supply workers, but we get the impression they are looking at opportunities in other sectors."
Capper added: "We suspect staff turnover is on the increase, leading to higher costs in recruitment, training and administration including pensions. They aren't leaving higher pay but to be nearer a town and to be indoors. The point will come when growers will struggle to recruit - we know that's coming."
Eustice said: "Workers will come back to fruit farms like Harry Hall's because they can earn quite a bit of money. There's not a great deal you can do if people want to work elsewhere. I understand the challenge. We used to have pickers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - perhaps the holiday visa scheme could be revisited. We also want to get people in this country back to work."
On SAWS, Eustice said: "The Home Office concluded that things had changed since it was introduced - we now have 28 member states whose workers can come and work here anyway. I know from my own experience of soft-fruit growing that growing it is the easy part. The challenge is picking it and getting it to market."
To which Hartfield said: "We still want to access labour from outside the EU. As countries join, their economies improve and you find it harder to employ. Eventually the supply will dry up and crops won't be picked. Let's not wait for that."
On the Government's water abstraction reforms, Eustice said: "There is a lot of inconsistency and it needs to be more logical. In fruit growing you are mostly talking about trickle irrigation and credit should be given where it's due." But Capper said it is "bonkers" that investment allowances under the current tax system cannot be put towards water projects on farms.
Speaking to Grower on the loss of plant-protection products, Eustice said: "I have been discussing with AHDB how we might improve EAMU's (extensions of authorisation for minor uses) for products that have already been approved. Also, if there was mutual recognition (of such approvals) in Europe we could then start to divide up the workload of granting these minor uses."
On recruitment, he praised the Bright Crop initiative that places "ambassadors" in schools to highlight the careers available in food and farming. "Getting people who are still in their 20s to do this is more likely to inspire teenagers, so they see it as an interesting and fulfilling career," he said. "Many young people are already interested in the environment and the outdoors, and if we can overcome some negative perceptions we should be pushing at an open door."
Fruit Focus Forum Moral imperative on fresh-food consumption
NFU horticulture board vice-chairman Ali Capper told the Fruit Focus Forum that there is "a moral imperative" to increase fresh-produce consumption.
"We live in an obesogenic environment that encourages us to eat unhealthily and not take enough exercise, and the NHS spends £5bn a year treating the disease problems this causes. One out of six meals is eaten outside the home yet there isn't much healthy food on offer when you are on the move. We need to think differently about how we present fruit and veg."
She added: "We will seek to influence retailers to promote fresh produce to consumers through point of sale, in-store promotion and dual siting in stores. Growers and suppliers can think about more convenient packs for on-the-go eating. The sales desks should think more about the food service, catering and wholesale sectors."