An inquiry by the parliamentary Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee on the future of labour availability in UK farming has drawn strong responses from representatives across the production horticulture sector.
With 400ha of soft-fruit production on four sites, Hall Hunter Partnership employs 2,100 staff of whom 1,600 are seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. "Unless we have easy access to labour our industry and many others will collapse back to the 90s and our imports will rocket," said the Berkshire-based firm in its response.
Efforts to employ more local people have been "hugely disappointing", it added. "There are insufficient unemployed to replace our European staff even if they all wanted to work in our sector. We have bought farm land in Portugal for fear of what the British Government will negotiate, but even there staffing is Eastern European."
Fellow soft-fruit grower Hugh Lowe Farms, which employs up to 550 seasonal staff, said the re-introduction of a Seasonal Agriculture Workers Scheme (SAWS) before Brexit is "essential", adding: "Our business would not survive a 'hiatus' year without staff, so the scheme needs to be in place in 2018. Negative press coverage and some personal experiences have discouraged people from applying to come in 2017. Applications are down and we are very concerned that even before Britain leaves the EU we will face a significant seasonal labour shortage."
The company blames "a woeful lack of investment in agricultural education" on its inability to recruit skilled staff locally, while stressing that seasonal work "is not a migration issue" because staff treat such work "as a stepping stone to a more settled life back in their own countries".
But Drinkwater Mushrooms of Lancashire said that merely reintroducing SAWS in its previous form "would effectively not only be the demise of our own family business but that of the whole UK mushroom industry and other UK fresh producers" given the year-round nature of the mushroom industry. The company's expansion has been a consequence of free access to EU labour and without it "our business will close".
It suggested an alternative: "The best way for us to carry on with our business would be for workers to only come over with the offer of a permanent job, which has been authorised. If the job finishes or they leave the job, they must return home."
By contrast, the labour required by the Grampian Growers farmers' co-operative in north-east Scotland is highly seasonal, drawing 95% of its labour from Eastern Europe to harvest and market daffodil bulbs and flowers as well as seed potatoes. "Without these individuals there would be no daffodil flower business in Scotland and the rest of the UK," it said. Reintroducing a SAWS-type scheme, however, "would assist greatly".
In its submission the NFU called for reassurance that EU workers already living and working in the UK will have right of residency, Government commitment to consult on controlled access to labour for the medium and long term and reintroduction of a seasonal agricultural permit scheme, warning that failure to manage the transition from EU labour availability "will have profound consequences on the sector".
In oral evidence to the committee, Bridget Henderson, food, drink and agriculture researcher for Unite and former editor of the union's Landworker newsletter, said: "Given the scale of the industry we have now, the speed that is demanded and the size of the workforce, it is difficult to see how that could be completely filled with UK workers alone. There will be a continued need, definitely in the short term and probably in the long term, for a range of different skill levels coming in via migrant workers to meet that."
A final oral session of evidence was due to be held on Wednesday 15 March, with the EFRA inquiry's report due "a couple of months later", according to a committee representative.