Migrant workers on Kent farms ‘down 20%’ as apple season begins
PUBLISHED: 16:14 20 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:48 21 September 2017
The weather has also presented challenges for growers across the county
The number of migrant workers picking fruit on Kent farms is down by around a fifth on last year, a grower has claimed.
September typically marks the start of the top fruit season where apples and pears are finally harvested after months of work.
However, farmers have faced particular challenges this year, with the weather often conspiring against them, as well as the uncertain climate that lies ahead in a post-EU Britain looming large.
One of the major issues facing Kent after Brexit is the access to labour from overseas, with Thanet North MP Sir Roger Gale warning the QEQM Hospital in Margate will shut if EU citizens are forced to leave.
His Conservative colleague Helen Whately, who represents Faversham and Mid Kent, has also claimed many of the county’s farms would be at risk of going out of business if they failed to secure access to seasonal workers once Britain is out of the EU.
James Simpson, of the Tonbridge-based grower, Adrian Scripps, told KentNews.co.uk how a need to pick apples and pears earlier in the year was having a knock-on effect.
“Last year was a late season and we didn’t start picking until mid-September, whereas this year we’re now nearly finished,” he said.
“It’s probably come about two weeks earlier which has put us under a little bit of pressure. The late varieties don’t get later but the early ones get earlier.
“A number of workers come in early in April and May to pick soft fruit and then move on to top fruit.
“Early on there were reasonably good numbers for strawberries and they took a phenomenal crop for which they only just had enough staff to do that.
“So they earned very good money and got plenty of overtime, so when it came to top fruit season, many had felt they’d earned enough and wanted to return home, so we are finding far fewer people transferring to top fruit.
“We have seen fewer arrive. Previously farms had a waiting list of staff, but this year they’re either far shorter lists or they don’t exist at all.
“That’s in part related to earnings at home and partly because of the exchange rate. As sterling has weakened, other currencies have strengthened and so it’s made it less attractive.
“But what we can honestly say is many of the workers would prefer to come to the UK because they are treated well.”
The government has remained coy over how agriculture will access seasonal labour from overseas after Brexit, which has caused must frustration from within the industry.
Mr Simpson said: “Most farms are getting by this year but it’s a struggle and they’re certainly short in some areas, on average there’s probably a 20 per cent shortage in workers.
“The issue next year is that it’s the last year that we have freedom of movement, so there’s only one crop left and we usually book labour well in advance.
“Of course, we are hoping the government will give us access to labour because it’s not just an agricultural problem, in hospitality and the health service there’s going to be a shortage of staff.
“There’s confidence with most growers that there will be something in the short-term, perhaps open borders for two years, and that we’re not going to go off a cliff immediately, but we’re still heading towards that cliff.
“We’ve had meetings with ministers and there hasn’t been a lot of clarity. We are at such a crucial stage of negotiations and the EU wins every negotiation so we’re rather fearful.”
Access to labour hasn’t been the only challenge facing growers in Kent this year, however, with a series of sharp frosts in April and May presenting their own range of difficulties for producers.
If there are problems here, there are problems across the country, with Kent typically producing around two-thirds of the entire nation’s harvest.
“The big issue always centres around weather,” Mr Simpson said.
“We rarely moan about it and get on with it but essentially we had a series of quite severe frosts, which can kill fruit - it’s no different to the effect on roses in your garden.
“Cox were particularly badly affected, the national crop is down 30 per cent on what we ordinarily expect.
“But it’s variable, some farms have none at all, some have a full crop, it just depends where it hits.”
Gala and Bramley varieties have also been affected, although while the external appearance of some has suffered, growers insist the quality of taste and flavour remains.
With frosts and hailstorms severely impacting growth in the West Country, farmers anticipate Kent’s contribution to increase this year, providing close to 70 per cent of the total apples produced.
Despite the challenges, industry chiefs are remaining positive, with new research from English Apples & Pears, which organises and promotes the industry, nine out of 10 shoppers who expressed a preference said they would buy British apples whenever possible.
Chief executive Steven Munday said: “This is a huge vote of confidence for British growers.
“As Brexit beckons, it appears shoppers here are actively supporting British produce and, in particular, that they are looking for British apples in the shops.”
To tap into rising demand for British apples, UK growers will be unveiling a new sticker to be placed on millions of apples and packs nationwide, helping consumers to identify and buy British apples easily in stores.
Mr Munday added: “We’re looking to Britain’s retailers to support the country’s apple growers by using our logo on pack and at point of sale.
“In our survey, better display and identification of apples as British in the shops were also key concerns for consumers, who said they would buy more apples if they could easily see that they come from Britain.”