Angus Davison of Haygrove in Ledbury, Herefordshire, blames last month's 7ha of wasted strawberries on being able to get only an "insufficient" number of pickers through the scaled-down Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) and "unemployable" pickers from other parts of the EU.
In a letter to fellow strawberry growers across the UK, Davison described the workers he recruited from EU countries such as Poland to make up for the shortfall in SAWS workers as "so incapable of earning a minimum wage they were economically unemployable".
He said: "Since the Home Office's effective dismantling of SAWS, which has been kept going since the war through good times and bad, we now have to take our chances with recruitment through EU 'agents'. But who can pay a mortgage and raise a family on a seasonal job?
"On the whole, the only people wanting a seasonal job are those who cannot get a full-time job or students - for whom it works very well. Getting rid of SAWS effectively transforms the type of people available to pick our fruit."
He added: "This is the first time in 20 years that this has happened to us as a business. We will contract. Substitute fruit will be flown in from US.
"SAWS is proven as good. Its not administratively dead yet - the infrastructure and systems are still in place. The Government should see the SAWS reduction experiment's results for what they are and reopen it to non-EU students."
This year the Government has restricted SAWS from 25,000 workers to 16,250.
The workers must be from Bulgaria and Romania - both of which have recently joined the EU.
The move is part of plan to phase out SAWS completely by 2010.
Some reports suggest that the Government placed the restrictions on the scheme to prevent the kind of high-level immigration experienced in the UK the last time a group of eastern European countries joined the EU.
A representative for Herefordshire-based S&A Produce, Rebecca Edmonds, agreed that workers from other EU countries are not as diligent as those from Bulgaria and Romania. "If we could have recruited everyone we needed to under the SAWS scheme we would have had no problems. Bulgarians and Romanians are very, very good workers. The problem has been finding workers from other European nations," she said.
"The primary target in Europe for seasonal workers is Poland. But the Polish economy has got a lot stronger, so from their point of view it's not economical to come here." (The problem has not been) the quality of the pickers under the SAWS scheme."
PRESENTING THE CASE
The NFU is receiving numerous reports from growers of crop losses due to the lack of labour.
Chairman of the NFU Board for Horticulture Richard Hirst said: "The Home Office has asked us to prove that there is a problem with numbers caused by its stance on SAWS. Now it appears that labour shortages are increasing as demand from all sectors grows during harvest."
He added that the NFU is going to undertake another survey on the impact of reduced labour numbers, which will also aim to find out growers' cropping intentions for next year "to highlight that growers are not planting crops which they consider they may not be able to harvest".
Hirst said: "We need growers to send us details if they are suffering problems. We can guarantee to use the information so that no growers are identified."
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