British farmers, forced to throw away tonnes of crops due to a shortage of labour, are calling for the UK government to bring back freedom of movement.
Some say they are having to recruit people from as far away as Kazakhstan to ensure no more food goes to waste.
It is the second year in a row that farmers have faced the problem of a lack of fruit and vegetable pickers.
“We’ve probably wasted about 30% of this year’s crop,” says Nicholas Ottley, farming director of LJ Betts limited. This amounts to about 150 tonnes worth, he explains.
The problem for the Kent-based farmer is that eastern Europeans, who were picking crops like baby gem lettuce pre-Brexit, have not returned.
Instead, farmers have had to look further afield to countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to find people to work for them.
Jobs for Brits?
According to Ottley, government proposals to increase the number of UK workers filling vacancies left by former EU workers have failed.
“There’s been a mantra of trying to bring British people in, we tried that hard, absolute no goer," says Ottley, "it’s just not happening."
"We’ve been in engagement with Maidstone job centre for four years and we’ve had not a single person through it.”
In West Sussex, one of the country's largest vegetable growers, Barfoots of Botley, has faced another uphill battle.
“Finding labour has been exceptionally difficult this year. There’ve been delays in people coming on the seasonal workers' programme,” says Group Managing Director at Barfoots of Botley Julian Marks.
The seasonal worker's programme, which offers short-term visas for farm hands, gave UK growers the opportunity to invite 30,000 migrants to work in the country this year, with the option for 10,000 extra if needed.
“To recruit somebody, to get all of their paperwork in order, and then to move them to the UK takes a minimum three weeks. And crops don’t wait for anybody," explains Marks.
"They keep growing and once they grow beyond a certain point they’re out of specification for UK retail and they will go to waste."
The UK government says it acknowledges the farming industry is facing labour challenges. In response, it has extended the seasonal workers' visa route until the end of 2024 and is also working towards attracting domestic workers to the sector.
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