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With the Coronavirus pandemic putting the whole world on lockdown, the restriction on travel has presented new challenges for the food production industry.
Facing a massive labour shortfall, British farmers who were once reliant on overseas workers have now turned to local hands to help fill seasonal vacancies.
Recruiting the masses
In the UK, the farming industry requires around 70,000 people each year to pick fruit and vegetables during the harvesting season, with figures suggesting that roughly 98% of these seasonal workers come from Eastern Europe. Whilst around one-third were already in the country when the lockdown was announced, with other workers unable or unwilling to travel to the UK, it left a shortfall of tens of thousands of people.
It came at a time when panic-buying left the country with food shortages across the board, and British farms started preparing for spring sowing. Although the panic buying subsided, there was still a sense of urgency as fruit and veg growers, a vital part of the British food chain, began to plan for the busiest time of the year.
The country was already facing a potential shortage owing to concerns over Brexit, but with the onset of COVID-19, many growers in the UK launched a mass recruitment drive. Some producers took to Twitter to reach potential employees, whilst a briefing by the UK’s Environment Secretary, George Eustice, helped boost the drive.
Initially, some growers say, this drive came too soon. As thousands of British nationals applied for vacancies, many were turned away as the UK was still in its hungry gap phase. Some potential employees who were later offered jobs, however, turned them down after realising the extent of work involved.
According to Concordia, one of the UK’s largest recruiters of seasonal horticultural labour, over 36,000 people applied to vacancies in the industry, a vast number of which opted not to complete the interview or accept a position. Of the ones who were employed, just over 100 are still working. Now, fruit and veg looks to go to waste if the vacancies aren’t filled soon. As the season starts to really pick up, these jobs will need to be filled from mid- to late-May until around September.
What’s more, the fact that this is the time of year when the nation becomes self-sufficient in various fresh produce only adds to the sense of urgency.
A new field of work
With such a huge labour shortfall, and thousands of Brits out of work, it made sense for growers to turn to those who’ve been furloughed in the UK to fill the vacancies.
The manual labour may not be what many of the furloughed workers are used to, and growers say consumers can expect plenty of wonky veg from their inexperienced pickers, but it’s yet another case of people coming together to support one another during these trying times.
Caroline Westacott, general manager at South Devon Organic Producers, told us:
“As a co-operative with 14 farms growing over 400 acres of organic field scale vegetables for Riverford, we are always faced with labour challenges throughout every season. Historically, we’ve welcomed returning, experienced staff from countries such as Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Lithuania, and we find these staff invaluable.
“We started a recruitment campaign back in early April for the summer season and although we attracted a lot of interest, sadly in reality it was a small percentage of UK people who actually engaged in the work offered. Those who have actually started and stayed with our farms are proving to be very good, albeit inexperienced and needing constant supervision, which ultimately becomes expensive. We have a lot more recruits who we hope to employ after our annual hungry gap, which we are in the midst of right now.”
Ed Scott, Riverford harvest manager, added: “The ideal weather conditions have meant that our first seasonal additions to the field teams have had a kind introduction to the realities of organic farming. We have more new faces than usual this year as lockdown has prevented some of our regular team making it over from the continent.
“Initially concerned about a labour shortage, we have been inundated with applications from some of the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the pandemic. It’s great to be able to help out, but the number of people we need is a drop in the ocean.
“The new recruits are quite green (most of our usual returnees have been coming over for years, and are old friends who know the job backwards), but I’m really pleased with how things are going so far. If you’d asked them a couple of months ago, I doubt many would have expressed a burning desire to plant and harvest vegetables, but they’ve got the right attitude and that is invaluable.”