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Brexit: British strawberry prices set to soar by 50% as fruit farms face 'cataclysmic' fate without EU workers

The UK's £1.2bn soft fruit industry relies heavily on migrant labour and farmers warn it is heading for 'disaster' 

Ben Chapman
Thursday 22 June 2017 12:36 BST
Around 95 per cent of the 29,000 seasonal labourers who pick fruit in the UK are from the EU, with most coming from Bulgaria and Romania
Around 95 per cent of the 29,000 seasonal labourers who pick fruit in the UK are from the EU, with most coming from Bulgaria and Romania (PA Archive/PA Images)

The price of British strawberries could soar as much as 50 per cent as the industry faces the “disastrous and cataclysmic” effects of losing EU workers, farmers have warned.

Around 95 per cent of the 29,000 seasonal labourers who pick fruit in the UK are from the EU, with most coming from Bulgaria and Romania.

Without continued access to that labour after Brexit, strawberries and raspberries will be between 30 per cent and 50 per cent more expensive, a report for industry body British Summer Fruits predicts.

Soft fruit production in the UK was a £1.2bn industry last year, having grown by 131 per cent over the last two decades. Strawberries account for the vast majority of this expansion, the trade body said.

Farmers are already facing a labour shortage which is being exacerbated by Brexit, British Summer Fruits warned. The slump in the value of the pound has seen the value of EU workers’ wages effectively cut by more than 10 per cent, while a perception among migrant workers of increased anti-immigrant sentiment may also be putting people off coming here to work in the fields, industry figures have said.

British Summer Fruits said on Thursday that the Government will see income tax, National Insurance and income tax revenues fall as the industry suffers and UK growers go out of business. The country will also become more reliant on food imports, the report predicts.

It has called for a Seasonal Agriculture Permit Scheme which would allow European workers to enter the UK on fixed-term contracts “to fill the jobs UK citizens shun”.

British Summer Fruits chairman Laurence Olins said: “This is as extreme as it gets. If we do not have the pickers, we do not have a soft fruit industry.

”It is inconceivable that people who voted to leave the European Union wanted to destroy an iconic and incredibly competitive British horticulture industry, and see the end of buying British produce.

“But if we cannot ensure access to the seasonal workers needed to produce soft fruit in Britain, that will be an unintended consequence of Brexit - along with soaring prices and increased reliance on imports.”

The industry has been warning of the impact of Brexit for months. In February John Hardman, who runs Hops Labour Solutions, which recruits around 12,000 seasonal farm workers each year told The Independent that vacancies had become harder to fill in the wake of the referendum. In 14 years in the business he said he had never previously had a problem finding willing hands.

In early 2017 he saw a 30 per cent rise in the number of farms seeking his services to help them find workers. “What this tells me is that those farms that were recruiting themselves are now struggling to find the workers. It’s a big uplift year-on-year,” he said.

The latest report comes as the Government this week began Brexit talks with EU leaders. Theresa May has had to soften her hard Brexit stance in the wake of a humiliating election performance which saw her fail to secure a majority.

The Prime Minister is said to be preparing to offer a “generous” deal for EU citizens in the UK, having previously refused to guarantee them any residency rights.

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