I was delighted to welcome Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to Kent last week.
Ms Leadsom praised Britain's "world'class horticulture sector" and said she was: “Delighted to be invited down to Kent and to have the chance to meet local farmers and growers," on a tour of WB Chambers and Son, a large fruit farm in Sutton Valance.
I invited Ms Leadsom to hear first-hand from local farmers about the challenges they are facing recruiting enough workers to pick and pack their fruit.
Agriculture is crucial for Faversham and Mid Kent. Our famous fruit and hop farms shape the local countryside and make it the Garden of England we love. Farmers – and their workers – make a vital contribution to the local economy. And at a national level, I’m proud Kent produces an important share of the country’s supply of fruit.
Farming is also crucial to other local industries like tourism. Our glorious countryside is part of the experience of visiting Kent, and it’s farmers who do the lion’s share of looking after the landscape – along with growing the crops the county is famous for.
Fruit farming has been a success story in recent years, and I want to see it continue. The horticulture industry needs thousands of seasonal workers every year to pick and pack produce. But with low unemployment locally, and only around 800 jobseekers, farmers are reliant on workers from overseas – mainly from EU countries. Many have already seen a fall in numbers of applications for fruit picking jobs, and are anticipating bigger recruitment difficulties once we have left the EU.
That's why I'm campaigning for a permit scheme to allow seasonal agricultural workers to come to the UK temporarily to work on farms. I'm confident that Ms Leadsom left Kent in no doubt of how badly such a scheme is needed.
She said: “Horticulture is central to my ambition of freeing up farmers to grow more, sell more and export more Great British food and I look forward to working with Helen and Kent’s farmers to achieve this.”
Now we are expecting a General Election, I will be following up to press for a commitment to this in the new manifesto.