A gloriously dry, sunny September is helping to ripen the last tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, and harden the skins of our winter squash and pumpkin. For most crops it has been a good growing year, with just about enough rain, plenty of sun, and none of the weather extremes which can undo a grower’s best-laid plans.
Planning for the next cropping year is already underway. Top of most growers’ concerns is labour. Picking is often back-breaking and, to some, tedious work, requiring a level of endurance which is hard to imagine until you have done it. Even those in the prime of life will find the first month gruelling, while their bodies and minds adapt and they learn the tricks that make an eight-hour day in the fields doable (or even enjoyable).
Many farmers moan that people ‘just don’t want the work’, but too often the reality is that the farmers don’t either; I can’t remember when I last saw a large-scale grower bent over in a field. Most wouldn’t make it to lunchtime. Supermarket vegetables are mostly grown on a vast scale, by producers who are completely dependent on a source of compliant, flexible (hours and backs) labour from lower-wage economies with more recent histories of agrarian societies; principally Central and Eastern Europe.
Almost a quarter (22 per cent) of Riverford’s co-owners are from Europe. Most have worked here for many years, and would be very hard to replace. Whatever happens on October 31st, many migrant workers now feel less welcome, and the fall in sterling makes the UK a less attractive work destination. We try hard to recruit locally, and crucially to ensure that joiners have a realistic idea of what they’re signing up for.
Even so, the number of UK field workers who drop out in the first week is high, making it incredibly hard to plan for the jobs ahead; something we are paying the price for at the moment, having not managed to weed crops at the optimum time.
There could be more recruitment problems next year; part of me is glad, because it would mean that the workers will be respected, valued and paid properly, even if it does drive up food prices. Tragically, the scarcity of willing labour could also drive further intensification and artificial chemical usage, as farmers attempt to grow the uniform crops needed for mechanical harvesting. But it may also generate welcome opportunities for smaller growers, who do at least some of the picking themselves.