Coronavirus: Could wartime-style ‘Pick For Britain’ campaign solve seasonal farmworker shortage?

Norfolk fruit farmer Tim Place has backed calls for a new Land Army of workers to fill fruit-picking

Norfolk fruit farmer Tim Place has backed calls for a new Land Army of workers to fill fruit-picking jobs usually carried out by European workers, who cannot travel this summer due to coronavirus restrictions. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE - Credit: Archant

Farmers want the government to evoke the wartime spirit by launching a Land Army-style “Pick for Britain” campaign to save the nation’s fruit and vegetable harvest.

Strawberries growing on tabletops in the polytunnnels at Place UK in Tunstead. Picture: Dan Yordanov

Strawberries growing on tabletops in the polytunnnels at Place UK in Tunstead. Picture: Dan Yordanov - Credit: Dan Yordanov

A new labour force is urgently needed to carry out the picking and packing jobs usually filled by the thousands of seasonal workers who come to East Anglia every year from Eastern Europe – but who will need to stay at home this summer due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

A nationwide push is expected to be launched by the government within weeks, calling for anyone from students to laid-off hospitality and tourism workers to step into the void and pick fruit and vegetables “in the national interest”.

The campaign is expected to carry echoes of the Dig for Victory movement and the Women’s Land Army, the two major national programmes launched to keep the nation fed during the Second World War.

And the farming industry is hoping to emulate the success of the call for people to help the NHS, which has attracted more than 600,000 volunteers.

READ MORE: ‘We’ve got your back’ – Farmers’ reassuring message over food supplies for the lockdownNational Farmers’ Union vice president Tom Bradshaw said the NFU is in talks with Defra secretary George Eustice to find “innovative and creative solutions to this urgent problem”.

“Growers that rely on seasonal workers to grow, pick and pack our fresh fruit, veg and flowers are extremely concerned about the impact coronavirus restrictions may have on their ability to recruit this critical workforce this season,” he said.

“We are urging the British people, university students, anyone looking for work, to mobilise behind British growers in this time of national importance and pick for Britain. There will be thousands of vacancies opening up in fields, polytunnels, glasshouses and packhouses across the country in the coming weeks and we need people to help deliver healthy, affordable British fruit and veg from field to plate.”

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One 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: “It is looking likely we are going to need help to harvest our crops of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and cherries in the summer, starting from the middle of May. The thing to emphasise is that it is going to be early-starting and physical work on your feet all day, and there are strict quality standards to follow as this fruit is for the fresh market.

“So we need to find the people who are suitable for that. My generation will remember going out picking in the fields for a couple of hours to get some pocket money, but that’s not what we will need.

“We will be putting out a call for people with the right attributes to contact us shortly. People in the hospitality industry will be used to being up on their feet for a long time, and those people could be suited to this kind of work. We will give training, there will be strict hygiene protocols and we will be keeping people’s distance within the fields.”

READ MORE: Subscribe to our daily coronavirus newsletter, with all the latest from where you liveRichard Hirst, who farms at Ormesby St Margaret, near Great Yarmouth, said he will need people to harvest lettuce and salad crops later in the season, from late July.

He said: “We have been trying for years to engage with UK citizens to get people to come and work on farms, as they used to a couple of generations ago, but it has not happened. Now there is a desperate need for it to happen – we have productive capacity here to produce lots of fresh fruit and vegetable, but it needs picking. If there are people out there who for whatever reason cannot work, there is an opportunity to get decent paid work out in the fields.

“The conditions are good and it is outdoors, and it is all part of us coming together as a nation to do our bit.”

A Whitehall source told the EDP: “There is a real spirit of wanting to help the nation through this incredibly tough period. And helping farms pick fruit and vegetables could be the perfect way. The food produced in the East of England is vital for the whole country and I am sure people will want to help if they can.”

Industry body British Summer Fruits has published an interactive map showing berry farms with picking vacancies this summer. For more details, see the British Summer Fruits website.