Our Polish worker Martin arrived 20 years ago with a tent and a guitar. He came back the following summer with some friends, and the farm has become increasingly dependent on eastern European workers ever since. I am frequently asked how we will cope post-Brexit if there are no new migrants; the answer is it will be tough, but not impossible. There will be lots of restructuring in food and farming, bringing opportunities for new entrants and smaller, more human-scale businesses; something I welcome. The relentless march to scale, whether on fruit farms or in poultry slaughterhouses, has been facilitated by the availability of compliant ‘operatives’ who don’t question or complain and are therefore deemed to be happy. They are not; they have the same human needs for decent housing, dignity and respect as the rest of us, but simply have fewer options. Cheap food has too often come at the cost of a return to Victorian working practices. There are exceptions, but it has been too easy to be a bad employer in an industry I sometimes feel ashamed to be part of.
Today non-UK staff, mostly Romanian, Polish, Lithuanian and Slovakian, make up around 35% of our staff at Riverford (the norm in horticulture is closer to 90%); they have made a huge contribution. Most started as seasonal field workers, and the majority return home after a season or two, while some have married, put down roots and worked their way up through the business.
Field work is unbelievably tough for those who have not experienced it. Hours in the gym will not prepare you for the endurance required; it takes at least a month for a fit and able body to become field-hardened. I used to do 60 hours a week but I couldn’t hack it now. It is a good guiding principle to avoid asking others to do what you wouldn’t do yourself. While the commonly heard farmers’ bleat that “Brits just don’t want the work” is largely true, they should spend more time asking themselves why and what they could do to make the jobs more attractive. I for one will not be lobbying for agriculture to be a “special case”; I almost relish the challenge of attracting and retaining staff in a post-Brexit UK. It will force us to do things we probably should be doing anyway.