Farmers warn of staff crisis

Farmers' leader Peter Kendall has warned that a shortage of seasonal labour to harvest salad and vegetable crops will cost growers millions of pounds in lost income.

Farmers' leader Peter Kendall has warned that a shortage of seasonal labour to harvest salad and vegetable crops will cost growers millions of pounds in lost income.

He told the House of Lords select committee on economic affairs that government plans to cut the number of foreign seasonal workers next year will put the industry under acute strain.

Mr Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union, said that agriculture and horticulture relied on a large number of seasonal workers, usually students in full-time education, to plant and harvest crops.

The Home Office will allow just 16,250 permits under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) next year - a reduction of about 5,000 on the current total. It insists that UK businesses must recruit from home and then from the EU because there is enough labour within the EU 27 member states to meet horticulture's needs.

Broadland farmer Richard Hirst, who is chairman of the NFU's horticulture board, said: “There is a real concern where true casual, seasonal labour is going to come from next year.

“It is a continual process of trying to explain to the Home Office that there is not the availability of EU nationals,” said Mr Hirst, of Ormesby, near Yarmouth.

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“Poland has now opened its doors to Ukrainians and we're told that Polish people won't be coming over here. Well, how does that work out?

“There is this huge demand for six months of the year for that labour. This is happening at a time when suddenly, people have taken more interest where their food has come from and local supply.”

Mr Hirst, who is also a former Norfolk NFU chairman, said: “The soft-fruit industry was challenged seven or eight years ago to extend its season, which it has done jolly successfully. What will put a break on that may well be the lack of labour to plant and harvest crops.”

Mid-Norfolk farmer James Graham, who produces about 3,000 turkeys for Christmas at Thuxton, near Dereham, has relied on SAWS labour for the past four years.

He employs about eight or nine people to hand pluck and prepare Norfolk Black Turkeys, the breed which was saved from extinction by his grandfather, Frank Peele, in the late 1930s. “Without these workers it would be very difficult to process all our turkeys,” he added.

Mr Kendall said: “SAWS workers provide a valuable pool of labour for agricultural and horticultural businesses who are considered to be conscientious and hard working. Employers do try to recruit British labour but have limited success, with few of the workers remaining committed to continuing to work on their businesses.”

From next year, SAWS will only be opened to Bulgarians and Romanians who, after their six months' farm work in the UK, will be allowed to stay here.

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