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Brexit hit farms hard. Coronavirus may leave food rotting in the fields

First came Brexit. Then the coronavirus. And now, there’s the very real prospect that mountains of perfectly good food will be left to rot in fields up and down the UK. The reason? We don’t have the people to pick it. Yet.

Eating your greens is important. Even during a coronavirus lockdown, you cannot subsist only on stockpiles of penne, baked beans, and toilet paper, and hope to stay reasonably healthy. The problem with fruits and vegetables, though, is that – before appearing daily on your supermarket’s shelves – they need to be picked from the field.

Doing that picking are so-called seasonal agricultural workers, people who essentially only show up at the farm during harvest season. According to the Office for National Statistics, as of 2018, 99 per cent of seasonal workers in the UK come from the EU – in particular from Eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria. With Europe now in the throes of a coronavirus outbreak, many of those workers have suddenly become either legally unable or simply unwilling to come to the UK. This might be a problem for your lockdown five-a-day plans.

Last week, Concordia, a charity that helps British farms recruit seasonal labour, warned that a third of the country’s food harvest might essentially go to waste if a solution is not found quickly. According to Anthony Gardiner, the marketing director of fruit and vegetable supplier G’s Fresh, the company is currently in a labour-shortage pickle. G’s is the UK’s biggest salad grower and is on course to produce over 250 million packs of celery and lettuce by the summer. “The disaster scenario would be that we wouldn’t be able to harvest that crop,” Gardiner says.

To address that, G’s has launched a recruitment drive targeting British people who are currently idle due to the new coronavirus lockdown – from students, to self-employed workers, to laid-off hospitality staff. Last week, in a job ad patriotically labelled “Feed Our Nation” on LinkedIn, G’s announced that it was looking to hire 2,500 people to work in farms in East Anglia, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, West Sussex and Kent; positions included crop-pickers, drivers, engineers, and team leaders, for an average salary of £400 per week. “[Those] job opportunities are starting from the April 22, which is when we’re going to have to start the UK’s summer salad and veg harvest,” Gardiner says.

A similar, wider effort is taking place across the whole agricultural and horticultural sector – which every year needs around 70,000 seasonal workers to get the crops off the fields. Last week, George Eustice, the secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pleaded with Britons to start picking fruits and vegetables.

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Concordia has joined forces with agricultural labour suppliers Fruitful and Hops Labour Solutions, launching a country-wide campaign to ramp up recruitment of British pickers. Sarah Boparan, Hops’s director of operations, says that in normal circumstances the UK’s low unemployment rate makes it hard to tap into British residents to staff the sector’s workforce. But the coronavirus pandemic is changing that. “There has been a natural joining up of the fact that some people’s jobs have been impacted directly by coronavirus and the sector’s need for the labor,” she says.

Boparan says that as of March 27 – ten days after the campaign’s kick-off – over 11,000 people have applied for a position. Most of the applicants are students or self-employed workers; Concordia’s CEO Stephanie Maurel told Sky News that the government’s plan to pay 80 per cent of salaries during the lockdown might have disincentivized salaried employees from applying for a seasonal job. Whatever the case, Hops and the others need to recruit more, and faster.

British agriculture had its annus horribilis in 2017, as the number of EU seasonal workers dropped by 17 per cent in the wake of the Brexit vote; things had returned to quasi-normal levels in 2019, when Boparan says that Hops managed to fill 97 per cent of required placements. Now, with the coronavirus essentially stifling free movement even before Brexit’s completion at the end of 2020 makes that a legal reality, working out who will pick Britain’s fruits and vegetables seems more urgent than ever.

The strawberry harvest starts in five weeks. And as Britons lay siege to supermarkets, emptying the shelves in occasional bouts of buying panic, some farms might have to rethink some of their production routines on the hoof. “Our farms are looking at whether they should plant different crops in order to meet demand,” says Boparan. “That’s where the government could perhaps get some clarity or some guidance: we’ve got farms that would potentially grow herbs or nursery plants – should the government give them more direction on growing more edible produce?”

Confronting similar circumstances while training tens of thousands of new staff in just a few weeks sounds daunting. Luckily, a small number of Eastern Europeans have stuck around in the UK, and will be able to provide leadership and expertise to newcomers. “They’re really important to us because they’re the people that return year after year, who have the skills to be able to effectively harvest,” Gardiner says. “And they’ll keep the people that are coming out to work with us – and who’ve never been in the field before – safe.” G’s is exploring ways of beefing up that contingent, for instance by organising charter flights to carry over enough expert returnee workers, but with fresh lockdowns in Romania and restrictions across Europe, Gardiner says “that window for bringing people is closing at the moment”.

Nobody – not in agriculture, not in other sectors, not anywhere really – dares ponder the question of what will happen in a post-coronavirus scenario. But it is a question that has some force, especially in the UK. The reason being, of course, the star-crossed collision of coronavirus and Brexit.

“We’ll need additional labour supply beyond the EU when the coronavirus scenario has finished. This is a short-term solution for hopefully a short term problem,” Boparan says. “I can’t imagine all of the UK labor that has applied will remain in agricultural jobs. Even if I sincerely hope that a percentage of them do: this is a fantastic sector to work in.”

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This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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