Seasonal labour leads Fruit Focus forum topics

The future availability of seasonal labour for growers was the hot topic at a well-attended session during Fruit Focus. "Our sector has been handed considerable challenges, which we hope to turn to our advantage," said NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman Ali Capper.

Capper: fruit production sector has been handed significant challenges - image: HW
Capper: fruit production sector has been handed significant challenges - image: HW

"We have to assume free movement of labour is unlikely, so we need to look at everything right now and have a full dialogue with Government. Elements of the Australian system would work well for us - it's not just for skilled labour. We were already looking for something greater than just EU nationals."

She added: "We have a lot of returnees each year, especially from Poland, and should be able to bring those back for six weeks or six months. It needs to be cost-effective and easy to administer. The important thing is to secure a supply of seasonal and permanent labour - two years isn't that long. We have made Defra and the Home Office aware of the importance of this. We are determined to lead on these issues."

NFU chief horticulture adviser Chris Hartfield said: "We aren't looking for a scheme that limits numbers. You don't need to lose many before it becomes unprofitable, and we want growth in these industries."

The union's vice-president Guy Smith added: "We need to explain why we need migrant labour or we will simply export our agriculture and horticulture, and that isn't acceptable. We will need a lot of robust information on which to base policy, and we need to action that now. We can't pass the buck to Brussels any more."

To which Defra horticulture and potatoes team leader Kathleen Kelliher said: "We don't know the exact number (of seasonal workers). The Migration Advisory Committee says 67,000 and we are using that for now. There are a lot of unknowns and we need facts and evidence."

Rob Orme, chief executive of sector recruiter Concordia, said: "People are still wanting to come, and though the weaker pound is having an effect we certainly don't see any problems in the next couple of years. But there has to be some provision for horticulture and other sectors. We are confident that there will be supply, but the route of that supply will change. We believe there will be a new programme from Europe and beyond. We want a SAWS-type arrangement - that was really effective including as a skills exchange. But there are now so many issues to be dealt with. We don't want this to slip down the agenda."

On other consequences of Brexit, Capper said: "We are keen to keep existing POs (producer organisations). The principle is great, but we want a simplification as the administration is a complete headache. Tax allowances of £200,000-300,000 don't work for our sector. The big investments we need for higher productivity cost millions."

Crop protection is another big issue, she added. "We want access to new actives in order to remain competitive. They are often available in the rest of the EU but not here. The Chemicals Regulation Directorate is under-resourced and it's very important that's put right."

Smith pointed out: "A UK-only market will be less interesting for big companies than the EU market. I am concerned that our influence will now decline. There are 30-40 reauthorisations coming up in the next two-to-three years and these may go against us."

Hartfield added: "The board already had a five-year strategy for growth over the term of this Government and labour was already a key issue. The referendum has changed the landscape but key issues remain, not just labour but crop protection, plant health ... It's easy to be overwhelmed but we have a considerable opportunity. There is clear demand for traceable food grown on British farms - 70 per cent want more of it."

Speech - NFU vice-president Guy Smith addressing Fruit Focus session

"The 24 June result has changed the complexion of everything in agriculture. Many farmers are feeling disconcerted and uncertain. But it’s also an opportunity that we need to make the most of.

"The NFU is now undertaking a major consultation with our members. We didn’t think we would have a new Government before September but now the timetable is moving fast. The NFU’s work before the referendum has put us in good stead. Like in 1947, agriculture is at a fork in the road. We need to thrash out our own agriculture policy — few of us here can remember a time when we were free to do this.

"Getting MPs onto farms is really important, especially in the next four or five weeks, in order to say ‘don’t forget agriculture’. We operate to high standards and do not want permanent subsidies.

"We are a go-ahead industry that thinks forward and invests. I challenge you all to get your MPs out on your farms."

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