Coronavirus: Jobs urgently need to be filled in farming’s new ‘Land Army’

Out-of-work Brits have been urged to fill fruit-picking jobs on farms as coronavirus restrictions pr

Out-of-work Brits have been urged to fill fruit-picking jobs on farms as coronavirus restrictions prevent seasonal workers travelling from abroad. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

A new “Land Army” of workers is urgently needed to fill jobs on East Anglia’s fruit and vegetable farms and help feed the nation during the coronavirus pandemic, said industry leaders.

Government figures show that more than 60,000 foreign seasonal labourers usually arrive each year to help complete annual harvests – but travel restrictions are expected to make it almost impossible for farmers to recruit that migrant labour from Europe this spring.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) estimates that 75pc of these workers will be unable to enter the UK, and illness absences could potentially push the shortfall up to 80,000 across the country.

With the asparagus season about to kick off in April, and soft fruits like strawberries to follow in May, a campaign has been launched to find UK-based workers to step in and fill the picking and packing jobs previously carried out by migrant workers from eastern Europe.

Seasonal labour agencies Concordia, HOPS and Fruitful are working together to encourage applications from people, including those who may be temporarily out of work because of coronavirus-related business closures in the hospitality and tourism sectors.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in NorfolkAnd at a time when thousands of people find themselves suddenly out of employment, the CLA is also urging people to “seriously consider taking up an important role in Britain’s agriculture and food processing sectors, which offer decent rates of pay and more varied roles than people think”.

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CLA president Mark Bridgeman said: “We all know this is a deeply concerning period and we are all determined to do all we can to help the country through it. In order to do so, we must recognise that farmers supply of labour is in jeopardy. A shortage of 80,000 workers is something we have never seen before. This is why we are calling for a ‘Land Army’ of employees to support farmers in feeding the country.

“We need urgent government assistance to help source workers and advertise positions. Time is of the essence as many farmers will soon begin, or have already, begun planting or harvesting.

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“Farms and rural businesses are already suffering from the winter flooding and uncertainty over future international trading relationships. If we fail to find these key workers, businesses will go bust.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Farm shops urge consumers to buy local foodOne of the country’s biggest soft fruit growers is Place UK, at Tunstead in north Norfolk, where up to 300 foreign workers usually gather its crops of fruit and berries.

Managing director Tim Place said: “We are OK at the moment – we have had teams out planting fruit and putting up poly-tunnels, but when we start on the strawberries in mid-May we will need people to help with that.

“The message is positive. I think there will be some university students who are back in Norwich, or some hospitality people who may be keen for some work for the summer.

“We don’t want lots of people contacting us at the moment – we have got a few weeks to sort things out. But the soft fruit harvest will start in mid-May and we may need some local people to help us.”

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