Farmers need fruit pickers

With fields in my Kent constituency currently blanketed in snow—as is the case, I am sure, for pretty much all of us—the pleasures of summer strawberries and autumn fruits seem rather far off, but that is certainly not the case for our fruit and vegetable growers. They are already very worried that they will not have enough workers to harvest the crops this year. The NFU has been gathering extensive data on the growing problem of the workforce shortage. For example, in May last year, there was a national shortage of 9,000 workers. Later in the year, 60% of apple and pear growers reported that they were short of labour for their harvest. Last year was difficult; this year will be harder. As for further into the future, farmers are very worried.

The uncertainty has consequences. It takes three to six years to grow a productive fruit tree. Farmers are putting off investment decisions because of their fears about future access to labour. Thirty-one per cent. of top fruit growers say that uncertainty about staff has made them change their investment plans, so some are reducing investment, some are scaling down their businesses, and some are saying that they are going to chop down and scrub up their orchards.

That is particularly sad and worrying in the context of the past couple of decades, which have been a great British success story for fruit and veg growing. It has been a great area of growth for our economy. For example, home-grown berry production has increased by 131% in the past 20 years and the industry is now worth £1.2 billion. Strawberries have gone from being a luxury that a family might occasionally buy for a special event such as a barbecue to being a very normal and common part of a family’s weekly shop throughout the summer—and very frequently British berries are being bought. The UK’s production of fruit and vegetables is a great success story for our country. It is a growing industry that we should be supporting. But unless we fix the labour shortage, prices will go up, fewer people will be able to afford British fruit and vegetables, that growth may well reverse and a share of the British produce that we currently consume will be replaced by imports.

Like Kerry McCarthy, I have a farmer in my constituency who is not alone in shifting production overseas because of the shortage of labour here. Labour shortages are not just a problem in Britain. As other Members have said, the whole of the European Union is struggling to recruit its workforce for picking fruit and veg. Germany, Holland, Spain, Portugal and Poland already have permit schemes that enable them to recruit workers from beyond the EU. If in the UK we introduced our own seasonal workers scheme, that would simply allow our growers to compete on a level playing field with their foreign competitors.

Since I became a Member of Parliament for a Kent constituency, where we grow lots of fruit and this is a common topic of conversation, I have often heard people say, “Why can’t British people do the work?” In the past we had the wonderful thing of people coming out of London to pick fruit in their holidays. Constituents tell me that they first came to Kent from the east end of London with their family when they were children to pick fruit and hops. It is also said that students could make up this workforce.

I have spoken to the growers in my constituency about this. They too would like to recruit British workers—local workers—to pick and pack the fruit and they have tried to do so. They have advertised locally and some have sometimes managed to recruit a very small number, but they know from experience that the local workforce do not supply the labour they need.

Part of the problem—and this is a good thing—is that we have very low unemployment. In my constituency there are about 700 people currently claiming jobseeker’s allowance. In the season, farms in my constituency require a workforce of 5,000 to 10,000 workers, and one farm alone employs around 1,000 seasonal workers, so those 700 people in my constituency looking for jobs simply cannot plug that gap.

Many people have said that we might be able to employ students, but as Members have said, the duration of the season has changed. Thanks in part to things such as polytunnels, we now have a much longer fruit-growing season and it is far longer than the student holidays. Along with the expectations of the consumer and the supermarkets and the requirement for a certain level of intensity and consistency in production, that means that a casual student workforce simply is not the right answer for modern production.

In the long term, recruiting people from further and further afield is probably not the answer either. It probably is not going to make sense to fly people from the other side of the world to come and pick fruit indefinitely. As I said, I think automation will gradually replace manual labour, and in some parts of the production line it already has. There is a large amount of automation in various parts of the production line, particularly for vegetables, rather than soft fruit.

Farmers and growers tell us that the robotic picking of soft fruit is a long way off. A robot has been developed, but it is very slow. It is certainly not able to do it at remotely the rate or cost-effectiveness that is expected by supermarkets and consumers. When a product is being manufactured, the robot needs to pick up a consistent part and put it into something, but every single bit of soft fruit is different. That requires a huge amount of sophistication from the robot’s vision systems and artificial intelligence. That technology is out there, but we are some way off.

That said, I very much welcome that, in the newly published Command Paper on the future for food, farming and the environment in a green Brexit, there is a recognition of the need for investment in research and development in agriculture to improve productivity. There is also an industrial strategy challenge fund to support this area. I urge the Government to do even more to consider how to incentivise automation in the horticulture industry but, to be clear, the benefits of that automation are particularly for the future. We have to deal with the immediate problem our farmers have and their ability to harvest fruit this year and in the next few years.