Why don’t soft fruit and vegetable farms employ more local people?

Why don’t soft fruit and vegetable farms employ more local people? 

A recent survey of NFU Scotland’s horticultural members, carried out by Policy Manager David Michie, failed to find any farm that had a positive response to this question.

  • One Scottish fruit and veg business offered 100 contracts of employment to UK applicants; six were accepted and only three turned up to work.
  • The retention rate for EU and other migrant workers is over 80 percent.  The retention rate for UK workers is 32 percent.
  • Worker shortages on Scottish soft fruit and vegetable farms are around 20 percent this year.

David writes:

The UK’s food and farming industries are facing a labour crisis. It can be seen in the newspaper headlines and in your local supermarket’s empty shelves. Incredibly, the British public are being told to start planning for Christmas now, over a full month before Halloween!

Scotland’s horticultural businesses have been on the front line of this crisis for two years now. Brexit has meant an end to freedom of movement for EU workers. This barrier been stacked on top of major Covid-19 barriers, and a migrant workers’ visa scheme that has not worked well for our members. These problems have resulted in less workers picking fruit and vegetables: our data shows worker shortages of around 20% for horticulture businesses this year, which means increased costs and crop losses.

So why have these businesses not been employing more workers from the UK? With more and more people coming off furlough, you would think that now is the ideal time to switch from EU to UK workers?

It is not for lack of trying. NFU Scotland recently surveyed its members, asking them to comment on their experiences of recruiting workers from the UK. Not one response was positive. We heard from one business who offered 100 UK applicants offers of employment in early 2020. Only six of those applicants accepted the offer. Only three of those actually turned up for work. 

The few people who do accept an offer of employment do not generally stay. Our data shows a strikingly low retention rate of only 32% for UK workers. This compares to an 82% retention rate for EU workers, and an 81% retention rate for other migrant workers. These recruitment and retention challenges are a major headache for horticultural businesses who now need more HR resource for less workers.

So what is the problem? Is the work so bad? Is it that poorly paid? The answer to both these questions is no. If it was, then migrant workers would go elsewhere. Here are some reasons why it is difficult to recruit UK workers:

  • Geography. Available work is in rural areas with no public transport links, and often far removed from large urban populations. Accessing farms is impossible for those reliant on public transport. Even workers with their own transport find it difficult to get to the place of work for the early start required.
  • Work pattern. Many jobs are in polytunnels that can get very hot, so work begins and ends early to avoid the midday heat. This requires a 05:00 start which can be difficult for workers not living on-site. There tends to be six day working weeks, with one day off at the weekend. There can also be irregular work with very busy periods, punctuated by shorter periods of little available work.
  • Length of season. Different crops have different season lengths and timings. Seasons can be long and extend well beyond university and college holiday periods. They can also be relatively short, high value, and located in one specific place; requiring seasonal workers to move to other parts of the country and stay in on-farm accommodation. The temporary nature of seasonal work can make leaving and then re-accessing the benefits system very difficult, which is a huge risk for those on low incomes.
  • Product quality. Retailers have high quality specifications that must be met by pickers.
  • Skills and nature of work. Workers must be physically very fit, mentally prepared to carry out repetitive and rapid work over long periods of time, sometimes in challenging weather conditions. 
  • Size of labour force required. Horticultural production is very regional, with small geographical regions employing thousands of people. There is just not enough local labour available to work on these farms. 

But local people used to pick fruit and vegetables locally, didn’t they? I myself picked strawberries and daffodils on my uncle’s farm in the 1990s. If it worked then, why will it not work today?

The industry has changed massively in the past few decades. The output value of soft fruit grew by £68m to £128m (an increase of 112%) over the decade to 2015; and vegetables were up £48m to £116m (+72%) . Access to high quality labour from Europe has contributed significantly to this growth. The UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) gave it access to a vast and growing pool of labour. 

This large pool of high-quality horticultural labour enabled the sector to evolve and thrive, meeting ever more challenging market requirements at ever lower costs across longer seasons. Before this easily accessible, high-quality labour was available, domestic (UK) labour was the main workforce in Scottish horticulture, and the sector was very different. 

This table shows the big six changes that have happened in soft fruit production as an illustration. There have been similar big changes in vegetable production.

The Scottish horticulture sector has been a huge success. It now produces large volumes of high-quality produce that has significantly improved Scotland’s ability to feed itself. It has become a success by restructuring: providing accommodation on-site, investing and innovating to extend the availability of fruit and vegetables through the year, and reducing costs to make its produce ever more affordable. 

But now, post-Brexit, horticulture has become a victim of its own success. Scottish horticultural businesses structures – like others in the world – are set up for temporary workers who come and go, staying on-farm, working long hours, and if they can pick high volumes, earn good money. This work is an experience, not a job. 

I have done it myself in Australia, after graduating. It was fun. We all stayed together, worked long hours in difficult conditions, earned decent money, and had great socials at the weekend with other workers from around the world. Would I have done the same in Scotland at the same age? No. I would have got a job that I could get to from my home, with working hours that enabled me to socialise with my friends.

Migrant workers doing short-term seasonal work on fruit and vegetables is a reality. This is a reality that is not going to change, regardless of how our relationship with the European Union changes. 

We are facing a labour crisis, and for horticulture, we need migrants to resolve it. We need migrants to get the food that is grown on our farms onto our plates, and not rotting in our fields. We need the government to move away from anti-migration politics to make good policy. We need the government to shift policy, and review, improve, and expand the scheme to bring seasonal migrant workers onto our fruit and vegetable farms. 

Author: David Michie

Date Published:

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About The Author

David Michie

David has been involved in the agricultural sector for the last two decades where he has worked on his family farm, at an agricultural science agency, as an agricultural and rural business consultant, and for an environmental food and farming charity. He joined NFUS in 2021 as their crops policy manager, where his role includes working with the arable, oilseed, potato, soft fruit, horticulture, and ornamental sectors.

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