Growers say they can have the best of both worlds if they exploit Brexit to sell more plants while using imaginative efforts to retain non-native English speaking staff. Agrumi owner Stanley Jackson is giving his staff English lessons to make them feel welcome.
After the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016, retaining overseas staff has become a huge issue for the sector, with no more free movement of EU workers expected by 2019. A Commons Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has looked at the issue, with the HTA's David Brown and Cobrey Farm's Chris Chinn among those giving evidence about potential labour shortages in the industry (HW, 17 February).
On 22 February EFRA heard an oral evidence session on "feeding the nation: labour constraints". Unite, the Country Land & Business Association, the Tenant Farmers Association and the NFU were all witnesses.
Around 80,000 temporary agriculture workers are from outside the UK. In the agriculture sector, Brexit minister David Davis says it will take "years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs". Jackson says: "Thinking about COSH assessments and health and safety and risk assessments, a lot is to do with communications, and if people can't communicate there can be problems."
Almost half his employees are non-native English speakers. Agrumi employs an Italian wire sculptor and several Polish staff with varied language skills. "To improve this we have language lessons," says Jackson. "We found a tutor on the internet and she comes in once a week. We have two groups and it has worked very well."
Workers now talk to him more when they previously could not and the lessons "make them feel wanted", particularly after a "range of rumours in the Polish community about what might happen to them after Brexit - for instance, having to pay for social services". The company makes topiary art in metal frames for displays and events, including weddings, trade shows, promotions, theme parks, retail and landscapes, and has had projects at Glastonbury and The Ivy, and has recently made a blue tit and troll for Frosts Garden Centres.
Hayloft Plants' Derek Jarman says overseas workers "need a job and we can give them work, and even with the current exchange rate they are happy", adding: "After the Brexit vote it was hard getting up in the morning, including for me, but life's moved on."
He points out that consolidation is the future in the nursery industry this year, with "just as many plants from fewer suppliers", adding: "The outlook for the UK should be good if we bring in tariffs and import duties. For growers, we have the best prospects since the 1970s."
Lowaters' Ian Ashton says his nursery spreads work evenly through the year, recruiting apprentices, and tries to employ locals to beat potential labour issues. He adds that annualised hours contracts and flexing people's hours so they work less in winter and more in spring helps retain staff.
On Brexit, he says: "Maybe there will be an opportunity to move on prices in the future. Imported prices will definitely be costing more and production nurseries could probably do with moving their prices a little bit."