Roots to Fruits: Seasonality or seasonal workers?

Most British strawberries today are grown in coconut fibre under acres of polytunnels and the season has been extended far beyond summer, writes Louise Gray in her latest Roots to Fruits column.

Wherever you were, I expect part of the joy in eating those strawberries was the image of the country idyll where the fruit was grown on a bed of straw and the knowledge that the season will not last. I hate to burst your bubble, but both these ideas are a myth. Most British strawberries today are grown in coconut fibre under acres of polytunnels and the season has been extended far beyond summer.

The question is, does it matter?  The extension of the strawberry season began in earnest in the 1990s with the introduction of new varieties of strawberries. Plant breeders realised you could cross the traditional British ‘June-bearer’, which only fruits for a short period in the summer and produces the best flavour, with the Mediterranean ‘ever-bearer’ that will fruit as long as the sun is shining. By putting these new varieties in glasshouses and polytunnels, fruit farmers were able to extend the season for tasty strawberries from six sweet weeks over the summer to eight months from May to September.

At the same time technology leapt forward so that it was possible to grow bigger, juicier, fatter strawberries faster. Strawberries on the ground are now often grown under plastic sheeting rather than straw. Many are grown on tables, so that they are easier to pick, in a growing substrate (usually coconut fibre, or ‘coir’). The fruit is drip irrigated throughout the day with fertiliser mixed in with the water. Even organic strawberries are often grown under polytunnels to extend the season, though without the use of chemicals.

Polytunnel
Strawberries are growing in substrate and on table tops. Image Rod Allday/Polytunnel at Mitchell Fruit Farm.

Visiting a Scottish fruit farm recently I was struck by the luscious fruit hanging from the tables. Of course, it is nice to eat a fresh strawberry from a traditional straw bed – and I certainly would not bother with more carbon intensive strawberries flown in from Morocco in January or from a heated greenhouse in October –but I see no harm in a British strawberry in May or September – a little outside the traditional summer season. Parents have certainly welcomed the extension in the season as a good way of getting fruit into children.

The bigger problem is who picks the fruit? For the last few decades, the British strawberry industry has relied on pickers coming in from abroad, mostly Eastern Europe. But with Brexit and the end of free movement of migrant labour into the UK it is getting a lot more difficult.

This year farmers have struggled to fill positions. A scheme to encourage British people to pick strawberries has been axed by the government, and the ongoing uncertainty about travel restrictions due to the pandemic has not helped. Robots are unlikely to help with delicate fruit like strawberries for at least another decade.

At Angus Soft Fruits, a strawberry farm near Arbroath in Scotland, I met workers who were happy to return but are nervous about the future and whether the UK will be remain an option for them.

For this year, the government has extended the seasonal workers quota at the request of desperate fruit farmers. But while ministers say they are committed to increasing homegrown fruit and veg in the UK, there remains a question over how to continue attracting migrant workers to the UK in a busy global marketplace and how to help farmers encourage domestic workers. It is estimated UK horticulture needs 70,000 workers a year.

Our strawberries are famous, rightly so, for their flavour. But if we want to keep growing the fruit we have to find a solution to the gap in seasonal labour. Remember it is not just memories of summer that makes strawberries taste so delicious. It is technology and innovation, and the hard work of people like Remiziye, Myumyun, Atushe, Angel, Bozhidar, Irina, Setso, Catalin, Lyuben, Ivan, Alia and Gyuten who picked them

6 Comments

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  1. Would there not be an option for the strawberry farmers to take on people local to them as trainees , educating more people in technology required for food production. Picking and packing in exchange for an education.

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    1. Not sure on the practicalities of finding space in the day as it is challenging and fast paced, as the harvest can’t wait! You are spot on though in that we need creative thinking on this one to ensure future UK harvests have plenty of pickers.

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    2. On my visit to Angus Soft Fruits I did meet people in training. They tended to be people who had come from Eastern Europe and then worked their way up within the farm. Many had decided to stay in the area and bring up their kids etc as the job became better paid and more stable. A good thing for a community with an ageing population! I did not see so many local people doing this. I think one of the reasons is the people coming from Eastern Europe already have basic horticultural training. Perhaps it could be something the Government looks at encouraging training through educational colleges and on bigger farms as part of solving this problem of labour shortages?? Also local people would need to know it is a job for life, with good pay. This may be possible with financial help for further training.

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  2. Back in the 1070s, students went fruit-picking … but those days are gone. By the 90s, supermarket barcodes and just-in-time warehousing led to a big demand for fresh produce one day and nothing the next: very short term contracts for growers and a high demand for very flexible workforces. Traditional gangmasters couldn’t meet the demand with small teams … Does anyone else remember how Eastern European workers were exploited by a new species of gangmaster, before they joined the EU in 2004? In the Fens, we had strawberry-pickers from mainland China … I often wonder whether some of the same people ended up picking cockles in Morecambe Bay.
    I don’t believe there are ways to make very hard manual work in all (well, most) weathers at low pay (we have a cheap food economy), despite the level of skill required, attractive to a new generation of young people. Does anyone have an idea why, now we’re out of Europe, the government seems to envisage an economy where UK youth might be attracted into low-paid agricultural labour while we attract higher-paid skills from elsewhere? I’d rather see good training schemes in healthcare professions and engineering and a welcome and incentives for migrants from countries with high unemployment and very low wages to continue to help us out in agriculture.

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    1. I think you are right to point out how hard it is to make fruit picking attractive to a younger generation. Yes, there are things that can be done through training programmes, but it would be very difficult for the industry to shift away from its reliance on relatively cheap hard-working manual labour. Perhaps we can find a balance? Yes, we need good training schemes for healthcare etc but we also need young people who need to know how to grow our food! Paying a fair wage for such important roles – or at least the promise of good pay in the long run, may help.

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    2. Agree with virtually everything you say, Louise; and I was very pleased to see you pick the topic of labour for this article. I’m very much aware, though, that growers/employers like Riverford are exceptional, in both senses of the word, and the mainstream is still growers struggling to meet the demands of supermarkets who are engaged in price wars. I’m fine with paying more for high quality organic veggies from responsible organisations: lucky me … at the same time, we want more people, and poorer people, to eat high quality food, especially veg and fruit … so many objectives to juggle. I’d love to live near enough to offer my labour to Riverford, but my gleaning performance a couple of years ago suggests I’m not that useful! and as it stands at the moment, agricultural labour doesn’t have the pay structure or progression opportunities for a career direction I’d have liked my children to take.
      I have no answers, as you see, but your role call of names of the pickers you know reminded me why we need to value migrant labour.

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