By all accounts, British fresh produce faces a difficult summer.
The 80,000-strong migrant workforce it relies on for vital jobs like fruit picking just isn't available this year. Because, if the rhetoric around Brexit hasn’t put workers off, Covid-19 and cancelled flights means most can’t reach the UK anyway.
“The fruit and veg sector is used to having around 50 per cent of its workers return each year, Brexit cut that down to 40 per cent in 2019,” says Ali Capper, the National Farmers Union’s chair of horticulture.
“Basically right now we’ve only got about 20 per cent of the people we need to start work in May. It’s a huge challenge for us.”
The industry’s solution has been scrambling to court a UK workforce. New schemes like the government-backed Pick for Britain and labour industry collaboration Feed the Nation are connecting willing workers with farms online.
And despite dark mutterings about British people being “too lazy” for the work, Capper says that farmers’ phones are ringing off the hook with calls from jobseekers.
Motivating UK workers to apply isn’t a problem. However, getting them to take a job is.
Since the 1990s, the industry has been geared towards seasonal workers, primarily from Eastern Europe. Traditionally these workers spend part of the year in the UK, before returning home to their families at the end of the season, choosing early starts and demanding physical work for the opportunity to earn three or four times more money than back home.
So far, UK workers aren’t as keen to accept these conditions. For example, to date 50,000 people have shown an interest in farm work through the Feed the Nation campaign. But, so far only 112 have taken up a post on a farm, according to Concordia, a charity that supports the labour providers behind the campaign. It is also partly down to a huge influx of applications ahead of the peak growing season - come June and July many crops will be ready for harvest with many more roles available.
“The main barriers to people accepting roles have been that the candidate is unable to accept the length of contract, that the farm is too far away from their home, that they don’t want to travel/commute, [have] care responsibilities that prevent full-time work or that they only want to do part-time work,” says Donna Holland from Concordia.
Capper says that British people naturally want a job that’s an easy commute from their homes and lasts throughout the year. And the industry, which is dominated by seasonal contracts and living on-site, just can’t provide them.
“I don’t think the ‘Land Army’ rhetoric has helped at all if I’m honest,” she says.
“Seeing it through the lens of the 1940s is very unhelpful. The media and the government are guilty of looking at our industry through rose-tinted glasses and what used to happen in the ‘good old days’. Our businesses are just not like that anymore.”
This retro language doesn’t sit well with food historian Doctor Annie Gray either.
“Every time people compare the situation to the Second World War I want to roll my eyes,” she says.
“The work was just as hard back then. Take the Land Girls. These were single women, often office workers, who were suddenly living with 60 other girls in dormitories in the Yorkshire Dales. Most talked about how isolating and physically demanding the work was.”
Capper describes today’s farms as “factories without roofs.” Their margins are squeezed so productivity has to be high: you’re more likely to see sophisticated growing platforms than a cider-swilling scene from Darling Buds of May.
“Picking isn’t for everybody. It’s not unskilled and requires good hand/eye coordination and a high level of fitness. Not everybody can do it,” she says.
There’s also the question of status. Gray points out that farm work has always been seen as a low-status role in the UK, often associated with poverty.
“Across history you’ve had two types of people: the farmers and the poor who take on seasonal work that’s back-breaking and poorly paid,” she says.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, increased mechanisation drove workers from farms to towns and cities to take on jobs in factories, and eventually offices and shops.
However, right up until the 1960s the urban poor took seasonal work on farms.
“In the 1960s you see communities in London’s East End going to Kent to pick hops. For many it was like a summer holiday and some people have fond memories of it.
“But I think that’s because they were children at the time, so unaware of the nature of what they were doing.”
But if fruit- and veg-picking skills are suddenly in high demand, will the status of the work change? And what is required to make this happen?
As farms already pay minimum or national living wages, raising wages further isn’t an option, says Capper. She maintains that the price supermarkets pay for produce at the farm gate has remained static for a decade, and this has to be absorbed somewhere.
“The truth is that supermarkets control most of the UK’s food chain and they don’t want to pay more for produce,” says Gray.
“You can’t necessarily blame them, or the farmers. At the end of the day people have got used to having a variety of foods at a cheap price.”
Wages aside, the barriers to farm work are as much about its seasonal and non-permanent nature, the rural locations and the tough working conditions. But it's also about the cultural perception around the value of such jobs.
Covid-19 has highlighted just how essential work in food production is to society. It may yet provide the opportunity to shape a new culture where seasonal workers, like carers and nurses, are properly valued for the work they do.