NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Ali Capper says: "The list of frustrating things is getting longer. It's still a priority for us to get some mitigation from the Government on the National Living Wage, which is due to rise further in April. But the number one concern is seasonal labour - not just post-Brexit but this year and next. We have already seen a definite drop-off in labour supply last season. We are currently awaiting dates with the Home Office to discuss this."
On other Brexit matters, she adds: "We are helping to shape thinking on the future support for producer organisations, which we would like to see not only continue but also expand into other crop areas such as potatoes, which are not currently covered. There is also a lot of concern in the industry about the revision of the Red Tractor assurance scheme, 50 per cent of which has changed. That's something we have responded to quite robustly."
Within the NFU, Dr Chris Hartfield has become senior regulatory affairs adviser, having served as acting chief horticulture policy adviser, a role now resumed by Hayley Campbell-Gibbons following maternity leave.
British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward says the AHDB's strategy review, on which it has just concluded a consultation, "will set the scene for how it delivers over the next few years". He adds: "The AHDB has an important role to play as research, development and investment in areas like automation and pest control are essential to our sector. It's critical we get the spend correct and so get tangible results."
On the question of seasonal labour, he says: "We need some sort of scheme. The danger is we now go into limbo at a time when growers need to firm up their labour requirements. The strawberry and asparagus seasons are not far away. Let's get a pilot up and running and it can be refined at a later date."
Also on Brexit, emerging trade arrangements "will be enormously influential" to the UK fresh-produce sector, he points out. "There is also the opportunity for a little inflation to feed through to growers' returns. Everyone could use some respite from the downward pressure of recent years.
Free movement essential
National Fruit Show chairman and now Avalon Growers Produce Organisation general manager Sarah Calcutt says of Brexit: "We need free movement of people for the hospitality and health sectors as well as farming. Without that we will have crops rotting in the fields."
But she says the forthcoming apprenticeship levy, in force from April, could benefit the sector. "From the growers' perspective we need to attract people into the industry. It would be great if our guys could benefit, so long as the cost is realistic.
"There is a lot of interest in automation and robotics, with the aim of reducing labour but also increasing product quality. That now includes infrared Brix (sugar level) testing, which allows you to make quality guarantees to customers. You don't want to lose the order, so if 25 per cent of a consignment is below grade you can choose not to sell and juice it instead. Big growers like AC Goatham are looking at this."
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