Inexperienced workers make for a difficult harvest

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Students and furloughed construction workers flocked to work on British farms. Despite initial enthusiasm, most left before the harvest began

, on the border between Herefordshire and Worcestershire, where Alison Capper’s family has grown apples and hops for 58 years, the year has a natural rhythm in normal times. Migrants from eastern Europe arrive in February to prepare the orchards—thinning apples, training hops, planting trees. They pick fruit in summer and autumn. By November, they are back home. But this year, they were hard to come by, so Mrs Capper had to supplement her labour force with locals.

Then came covid-19, and with it travel restrictions. The government created Pick for Britain, a loose network of campaigns, to get British people to fill some 70,000 fruit-picking vacancies. An avalanche of early interest saw Britons make up some 35% of the workforce in May, but they are now down to a tenth. Mrs Capper got a ragged bunch of students, furloughed construction workers and an events worker. Most left before the harvest began.

When labour was plentiful, slow workers would have been weeded out and replaced early in the season, but now farmers have to make do with what they can get. Angela Porchez, general manager of Angus Growers, has had to take many British workers off fruit-picking and give them easier husbandry tasks which are less time-sensitive.

Rising costs for farmers do not affect supermarket prices, which are agreed with growers long before the season starts. It is profits that have taken the hit, with producers of labour-intensive crops such as strawberries and asparagus most affected. Many crops’ profitability is now “alarmingly marginal”, according to Mr Pelham. In the longer run, labour problems will force prices up, which is likely to reduce demand for British produce.

 

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Here in Germany they are teams of experienced Poles or Romanians, used to hard agricultural work, who work well together. It is obvious that others can't manage it

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