‘Food is rotting in the fields’ - NFU deputy president Minette Batters demands urgent action on seasonal labour shortfall
- Credit: Chris Hill
Food is already 'rotting in the fields' of East Anglia due to a shortfall of seasonal farm workers – making the vital supply of labour the most urgent issue to address for Brexit policymakers.
That was the message to Norfolk farmers from National Farmers' Union deputy president Minette Batters as she spoke at the NFU county branch AGM at Easton and Otley College.
She said the NFU's labour providers survey revealed a 29pc shortfall in seasonal workers for horticulture businesses in September, as the weakness of the pound and uncertainties over Brexit accelerated a trend which had been apparent five years earlier.
To underline the need for the re-introduction of a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, she said she visited employers including Fenland salad and vegetable growers G's Group with Great Yarmouth MP and immigration minister Brandon Lewis.
'We knew five years ago that we would be facing a shortfall, but then we had Brexit and that massively exacerbates everything,' said Mrs Batters.
'Are we seeing fruit and vegetables rotting in the fields? Yes we are. Fruit and veg is rotting in the fields and still we see no action. We absolutely need a commitment to SAWS by 2018. We are making a compelling case, but we need the government to act.'
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Mrs Batters, who runs a mixed farm in Wiltshire, travelled to Norfolk following a meeting with Defra secretary Michael Gove, who spoke to a round-table group of farming organisations which she chairs.
She said: 'Some really important questions were asked, and on the whole there were positive responses. But it was disappointing on labour. He said they can do something in the short term, but long-term they see automation as the route forward.
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'I said horticulture has been the most progressive sector. It is phenomenally efficient and competitive, but there has been very little price movement in fruit and veg in the last 15 years, so where will the investment in new technology be coming from? That is the critical question.'
Mrs Batters said the 'big plus' from her discussion with Mr Gove was his enthusiastic response to the NFU's proposed domestic agricultural policy framework, which is built on three cornerstones of environment, productivity and volatility mitigation.
'We have to make our case for a new deal for farming,' she said. 'The industry receives £3bn from the EU – that would run central government for two days, so if we cannot make a case for that investment then there is something seriously going wrong.
'As farmers we cannot go green while we are living in the red. We need profitable and successful businesses if we are going to deliver the environmental benefits for a minister who wants a Green Brexit. I have heard him talk a lot about the environment, but it is great to hear that he realises that productivity and volatility measures are key to achieving that.'
The Norfolk AGM heard of a number of post-holder changes including news that the NFU's national president Meurig Raymond would not stand for re-election in February.
Norfolk NFU chairman Tony Bambridge said Mr Raymond should be thanked for the 'astonishing amount of service he has provided to the movement', particularly during the political challenges during the four years of his presidency.
Locally, the meeting was told that the NFU has 964 members in Norfolk, and farmers were urged to recruit their neighbours in a bid to reach the 1,000 mark in time for the county's 100th AGM in 2019, with regional director Robert Sheasby saying this would add weight to the organisation's lobbying power.
Hoveton-based farmer and contractor Nicholas Deane, who runs Bure Farm Services and Bure Valley Potatoes, was 'very proud' to be elected as Norfolk's vice chairman, while James Runciman, who farms near Fakenham, replaced the retiring Roger Long on the livestock board.
Other county representatives retained their places on the NFU's commodity boards: Ed Lankfer for livestock, Robert Salmon and Tom Dye for combinable crops, and Tim Cane and Ken Proctor for dairy. Mr Proctor, who farms at Shipdham near Dereham, was also re-elected as Norfolk council delegate.