A rotten business: DAVID JONES reveals how a UK labour shortage has left thousands of tons of ripe fruit and veg are mulching into the earth – while supermarkets fly the SAME produce in from thousands of miles away
- For family-run Cobrey Farm, near Ross-on-Wye the labour shortage is disastrous
- Farmer Chris Chinn says equivalent of 63,000 punnets of blueberries will rot
- 16 million of our apples will rot in the orchards this year due worker shortage
Almost 6,000 miles and six time zones stand between the Welsh market town of Monmouth and the dusty valleys of Peru, where supersized blueberries are being cultivated for export on a vast scale.
By contrast, the large, family-run farm where Chris Chinn and his brother Henry grow their admired Herefordshire blueberries nestles in the Wye Valley, just 15 minutes' drive away.
So why on earth could I only find £5 packs of blueberries from far-distant Peru on the shelves of the Marks & Spencer store, in Monmouth, last week, but none from the nearby farm — which has a contract to supply the supermarket chain?
Why, with Britain's autumn harvest in full swing and the bushes of our own farms laden with juicy berries, was there not a home-grown packet of this 'superfood' in sight?
According to the National Farmers' Union, 16 million of our apples will rot in the orchards this year because there are not enough workers to gather them
The answer became sadly apparent when Chris took me on a tour of Cobrey Farm, near Ross-on-Wye.
Founded in 1925 in the garden behind his grandfather's pub, as well as growing blueberries, it is now the country's biggest asparagus supplier and produces a variety of fruit and vegetables for the major supermarkets.
This is the season for gathering blueberries and French beans, however, and on a golden October day the rolling hills would ordinarily teem with legions of pickers — almost all migrant workers from Eastern Europe, these days — filling plastic crates.
Last Wednesday, though, only about 100 were working the fields in their orange-and-green overalls — just half the number needed to strip all the beans and pluck the ripened berries before they begin to rot.
For the farm, this labour shortage is little short of disastrous. Chris Chinn estimates that the equivalent of 63,000 punnets of blueberries will be left to wither, or be eaten by birds.
Meanwhile, in Sussex, 150 tonnes of lettuce have had to remain uncut in the past few weeks and during the summer eight tonnes of Class One Scottish strawberries went unpicked. Pictured: Family-owned fruit farm Cobrey Farms in Herefordshire
Enough French beans to fill 5,500 packs will mulch into the soil. The loss of revenue will run into tens of thousands of pounds.
'If we had enough workers to pick all our fruit, you would have found our blueberries in Monmouth M&S, not Peruvian ones, because we supply the company and they are generally very supportive of British suppliers,' the 38-year-old farmer told me worriedly.
'As long as the quality is good and the quantity is there, they will usually take our produce first.'
This autumn, however, the dearth of pickers means the quantity is not there — and the depressing scene at Cobrey Farm is being mirrored across the country.
The great British apple is our national fruit, and there is no taste quite as autumnal as that of a crunchy Cox's Orange Pippin or tangy Gala.
Enough French beans (pictured) to fill 5,500 packs will mulch into the soil. The loss of revenue will run into tens of thousands of pounds
Yet, according to the National Farmers' Union, 16 million — yes 16 million — of our apples will rot in the orchards this year because there are not enough workers to gather them. That is enough fruit to provide 44,000 children with their proverbial 'apple a day' for a year.
Meanwhile, in Sussex, 150 tonnes of lettuce have had to remain uncut in the past few weeks; during the summer eight tonnes of Class One Scottish strawberries went unpicked; and at Haygrove, a major soft-fruit farm near Ledbury, Herefordshire, 87,000 punnets of raspberries have just been written off through lack of manpower.
Perhaps because we cannot see a dramatic visual image of this appalling wastage — there is no colossal mountain of rotting fruit and vegetables — this story has been under-reported.
Yet Ali Capper, chairman of the NFU's Horticulture and Potato Board, told me the labour shortage was now a full-blown 'crisis'.
If it is not addressed soon, she fears, the British horticultural industry could shrink significantly, leaving shoppers ever more reliant on imported fruit and veg, which can be about 30 per cent more expensive than home-grown.
She said she already knew of two producers who are considering burning the plants for next year's crop now, rather than going to the expense of growing them — only to find they can't be harvested.
Other British producers talk of relocating to Portugal and even Senegal.
And all this at a time when the demand for locally produced food has never been greater, not only because it is fresher and boosts our economy, but because millions of environmentally conscious Britons want to cut down on the air miles for imports.
Buying British blueberries, as opposed to those grown on huge industrial farms in Peru, and freighted here by air or sea, is one obvious way we can help.
Indeed, according to Chris Chinn, for every kilogram of home-grown fruit and veg they buy, consumers save 10kg of carbon emissions.
But what has caused the acute shortage of seasonal pickers, and what can be done about it?
While some Remainers have sought to make political capital out of this issue because it involves Eastern European workers, the essential causes of the problem are not down to Brexit.
As several farmers put it to me, the imbroglio over the EU is just 'a distraction'. We will come back to this in a moment. But first, some history.
In bygone decades, the nation's farmers were reliant on a 'housewives army' of pickers: local women who would toil in the fields at harvest time for a few pounds, paid cash-in-hand.
Evoking a scene from the H.E. Bates novel The Darling Buds Of May, Mr Chinn's father, John, 67, recalled the days when he recruited women from towns and villages in the Forest of Dean.
'We'd send a ten-tonne stock-lorry around the estates, and they'd clamber in the back and spend the day working in the fields. Some would bring their babies in prams, leaving them beside the fields, and older children might play in the hills,' he smiled.
'It was hard, physical work but they wanted the money, so they were prepared to do it.'
These local women were augmented by travellers and backpackers, often from Australia and New Zealand. Casual workers also came from Africa and poorer European countries.
The overseas pickers were permitted to work temporarily in Britain under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Scheme (SAWS), which was passed after World War II amid determined efforts to increase food production, and ran from 1949 to 2013.
By the early 2000s, however, casual farm labour had changed radically. As one Romanian farmworker told me last week, pickers can walk 20km in an eight-hour shift, after which their backs ache from constant stooping.
To do such work, you need to be young, fit and mentally tough, and, as Chris Chinn saw several years ago, when Cobrey Farm tried to recruit workers from areas of high unemployment in the North of England, the younger generation of Britons no longer has the stomach for it.
Only 15 people would even try their hand at fruit-and-veg picking, he says, and although they were broken in gently, within a fortnight they had all returned home.
Although 1.3 million people in Britain are officially out of work, and a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggested the true figure could be more than three times higher, the welfare benefits system may also deter people from taking seasonal work, he suggests.
'I don't want to accuse them of being a generation of lazy people. I don't think that's true. [But] if you are in a settled situation, you are probably not going to risk losing your benefits for a couple of weeks on an asparagus farm.'
However, Eastern Europeans had a very different mind-set. Desperate to escape low-paid jobs and better themselves and their families, they were perfectly prepared to slog all day, in wind and rain and cloying mud.
When they gained freedom of movement through EU membership, they came in their thousands, first from Poland and the Czech Republic, and later from Romania and Bulgaria.
The latter two countries now supply 95 per cent of Cobrey Farm's casual labour-force, which peaks at 1,000 in summer. Though the work is long and tiring, they are paid £8.21 an hour and can earn between £300 and £500 a week with bonuses and overtime.
They also appear well cared for. They pay £52.85 a week for on-site lodging in mobile homes, have use of a new social centre with games, computers, free wifi and a canteen serving Eastern European food.
Four welfare officers are employed to handle their daily concerns. Unfortunately, however, for many Romanians and Bulgarians, these perks are no longer proving sufficiently attractive to lure them away for several months of the year.
There are several reasons for this, and they vary depending on who you speak to. Alexandru Barbacaru is director of Bucharest-based Est-Vest Services, an employment agency which supplies British farms with temporary workers.
Three years ago, it filled 5,000 vacancies, he says. This year, despite an advertising blitz, finding 3,000 willing pickers would be 'an amazing result'.
The main reason, he says, is Romania's recent economic boom, which has seen job vacancies soar and the average wage rise by 9.4 per cent. Until recently, a Romanian doctor could earn four times more picking fruit in Britain than practising medicine, but the gap has narrowed considerably.
The fall in the value of the pound — largely caused by uncertainty over Brexit — is another important factor. Romanians still willing to travel abroad for work increasingly prefer other European countries, particularly Germany, which has introduced incentives such as tax-breaks to entice Eastern European farm labourers.
According to Adrian Apostol, who first came to Cobrey Farm eight years ago and has worked his way up to a permanent supervisory job, Brexit-related uncertainty over the future status of Europeans in Britain has also discouraged some pickers from coming this year, and persuaded others to leave the country early.
'It is just the confusion that is scaring them away,' he says. 'But once this is sorted, whether there is a deal or not, I think they will feel settled and start to come back.'
Perhaps so. Yet our arable farms need 70,000 overseas casual workers each year to maintain full productivity, and given the improving fortunes of citizens in EU nations such as Romania, they are highly unlikely to come here in such great numbers ever again. What, then, can be done?
The farm lobby says the next influx of pickers will have to come from outside the EU, from huge countries where low wages and unemployment remain a problem. Places such as Ukraine — which already sends tens of thousands of seasonal farm-workers to Germany — and Russia.
To allow them to gain temporary work visas, the Government would need to reinstate the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme — axed, many will say with ill-thought haste, in 2013, by then Home Secretary Theresa May.
Critics claim this was done to show she was tough on immigration — apparently ignoring the fact that seasonal workers stay in Britain for only a few months (during which they pay taxes and National Insurance) and do not even count towards the Government's own migration figures.
She also ignored a report, that same year, by the Government's Migration Advisory Committee, warning that the scheme's success was 'a well-functioning model' and should 'not be underestimated'.
Furthermore, an opinion poll conducted for British Summer Fruits, which represents fruit farmers, shows that even among Leave voters, 61 per cent believe a post-Brexit visa scheme should be introduced to allow seasonal employees to come to Britain to fill jobs such as crop-picking.
Perhaps because the immigration debate remains so sensitive, ministers' response has been timorous.
Earlier this year, they announced a tentative reintroduction of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, but only under a two-year pilot scheme allowing farms to employ 2,500 non-EU workers.
It has led to the arrival of 1,250 students from university agriculture courses in Russia, Moldova and Ukraine, to be followed by others, from Georgia, Belarus and Barbados. However, the farmers I spoke to dismiss this gesture as a 'drop in the ocean'.
They are demanding that the Government grants immediate entry to the 70,000 workers they need so as to compete with the multinational farming giants that have colonised great swathes of South America and Africa, and are intent on flooding Britain's supermarkets.
I asked the Government what action was being taken to offset the dearth of pickers. A spokesman said the international post-Brexit overhaul of the immigration system would benefit everyone in Britain, including farmers.
An M&S spokesman said: 'We have proudly stocked British blueberries across our stores throughout the season.
'As the British blueberry season comes to a close we have started to transition to southern hemisphere blueberries, including Peruvian, to ensure the best quality.'
Perhaps so, but the blueberries I sampled at Cobrey Farm certainly tasted 'best quality'; I thought they were sweeter, through slightly smaller, than the ones I bought at the Monmouth M&S.
Meanwhile, the check-out assistant in Monmouth M&S had strong views on why local people couldn't be persuaded off welfare to work in local fields.
'Just look at all those people on the dole,' she said indignantly, when I mentioned that I could only find Peruvian blueberries in the store, despite their abundance nearby. 'It's all wrong. Why don't they go out and pick them?'
As Britain's farmers count the cost of this bitter autumn harvest and fret over how they'll survive without the help of the deserting Romanians and Bulgarians, many might ask the same question.