Crunch time is approaching for growers reliant on migrant workers following the Government's apparent rejection of a revived seasonal labour scheme.
"Will we have access to workers after Brexit? We are worried about whether we will have pickers this year," NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Ali Capper told a conference held by the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers - the first of its kind since 2003 - on 16 March. "There is a declining return rate. The messages that Government is putting out are causing our workers to think about whether or not to come."
Having been involved in talks with different branches of Government for some time, she confessed: "I am losing faith in the political system. The NFU has done a good job of making clear what the need is and what the risk is - they get that. Sadly it's still seen as an immigration issue. We haven't given up but it's incredibly frustrating.
"There are a lot of very big issues around Brexit and very little clarity. The Government is keeping its cards close to its chest, so it's hard to work out what it means for us. There is an opportunity to address issues like self-sufficiency. But I sense that there is a strong feeling among MPs that we can just import food."
Dismissing the idea that growers could source local labour instead, Capper said: "The unemployment rate is at its lowest since 1975. The people to do these jobs just aren't there locally."
The NFU "will look every month from now on at labour provision", she added. For the 2019 season, which is expected to be the first following Brexit, "it has to be sorted out during next year and the Government hasn't yet got its head around that", she maintained. "(Farming minister) George Eustice saying 'we will sort it once we leave the EU' isn't good enough."
She added: "We are keen for seasonal workers not to be included in auto enrolment (in pension schemes). We also have to meet a new set of accommodation standards. Meanwhile, there is a lot of news about robotic solutions - there is a robotic apple picker that will pick one a minute. None of them will be on a commercial scale for at least seven and probably 10 years."
Explaining how growers need to adjust their businesses to better cope with such ongoing pressures, Andersons Midlands business adviser John Pelham told the conference he is "mildly irritated" by automation "always being brought up", adding: "There are many more things we can be doing. We have already taken labour out of the cost of growing strawberries and apples. Automation isn't a short-term answer."
But he warned: "Never mind Brexit, the fundamental issue is the continuing inflationary trend in costs. Most commodities are worth much the same as when I started 40 years ago, while the cost of labour has increased sixfold and can be 50% or more of growers' costs."
In response, "horticulture has replaced labour with capital", he explained. "That's obvious in top fruit, where you now have up to 4,000 trees a hectare, with establishment costs of £20,000-£30,000 per hectare, but with an accelerated time to profit. The further into the future your profit comes, the more it will be eroded."
Pelham said the match-funded investment made by growers under the EU's Producer Organisation scheme over the past 20 years "shouldn't be lost on Government". He pointed out: "In dessert apples, the application of technology has been extraordinarily successful, not just in yield but in percentage of class-one fruit." But he warned: "Spending resources to grow non-class-one fruit consumes profit gained from the same amount of class one."
Even successful growers "are losing money every year and don't know it" due to the "mosaic of profit and loss" within the business, said Pelham. "Accounting tends to be on a whole-business basis, which can obscure a huge amount of variation. Your best-performing orchards may be paying for your bad ones. Addressing that is your best opportunity to cope with rising costs."
Concurring with this, G's Fresh chief executive John Shropshire said: "None of the companies that G's took over knew their profit per crop. You may end up contracting to grow at below your production cost if you don't know that cost." To which Capper added: "Far too much goes on where growers don't understand their costs."
Concluding, NFU deputy president Minette Batters said: "Our growers have pioneered efficiency and productivity. I don't believe our industry will be sacrificed, but we must make the case for it."
Grower's view G's Fresh chief executive says: 'We could move more production to Poland quite easily'
"I am more worried about the National Living Wage than Brexit," G's Fresh chief executive John Shropshire told the conference. One of the country's largest vegetable growers, G's farms equal areas in the UK and Spain as well as areas in Eastern Europe and Senegal, the latter particularly for the labour-intensive growing of spring onions.
"Labour is 65% of the cost of growing spring onions and that will only go up," said Shropshire. "We could move growing to Senegal year-round. Does the Government want us to do that?"
In Poland the company employs students from Ukraine, a non-EU country, rather than locals for much of the seasonal work. "Germany has the same. The UK could have too but chose not to," said Shropshire. "We could move more production to Poland quite easily."
The company has benefited considerably from the EU's fruit and vegetable regime, he said, while the single market enables G's to share a single field packing rig for celery between the UK and Spain. "No customs or hold-ups have added to our efficiency," he added.
In another bid for greater efficiency, G's is working with the University of Oxford on IceCAM, a project to make iceberg lettuce growing more predictable and in line with market demands. "We over-grow iceberg lettuce by 30%. That's hugely wasteful and reducing that would be a big win."
In its mushroom growing operation, meanwhile, G's is looking to reduce labour through increased automation. "It's very labour-intensive though not seasonal," said Shropshire. "We are investing a lot of money in this. It's extremely difficult but we have made progress." Automated field picking "is five years away".
Rejecting the anti-immigration case, he said: "The Ely area has 250 unemployed people but we need 1,500. Our workers paid £5.9m in tax last year, part of the £100m paid in by the industry. They cost the NHS nothing like as much and don't impact the local housing market. We have to attract, train and retain motivated people, and have invested heavily in our own accommodation."
But he conceded: "The industry doesn't have a great name - it's not high-status work. We are trying to sell it better to the public."