British fruit farmer cutting jobs and expanding in China as Brexit uncertainty hits UK agriculture

Government has not provided ‘adequate answer’ to concerns over availability of EU immigrants says marketing manager of Haygrove farm in Herefordshire

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 13 February 2018 20:35 GMT
The fall in the value of sterling against the Euro since the Brexit vote, means the UK has become less attractive to seasonal workers
The fall in the value of sterling against the Euro since the Brexit vote, means the UK has become less attractive to seasonal workers (Getty)

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One of Britain’s largest berry farmers is cutting hundreds of jobs due to uncertainty over the availability of EU migrant workers as a result of Brexit.

Haygrove farm near Ledbury in Herefordshire will employ 200 fewer seasonal workers this summer amid concern over availability of workers and Theresa May’s promise to end freedom of movement next year.

The farm is dependent on seasonal workers from eastern Europe, but owner Angus Davison said the farm is cutting the workforce by 20 per cent due to lack of clarity over the status of workers, and would consider expanding abroad.

Mr Davison, whose company has farms in South Africa and Portugal, told The Guardian: “I would feel very, very sad for the people here, after 30 years of building together. But I would quickly move our activities abroad, with those that wanted to come. We’re not stuck here, we live on planet earth.

“If we don’t get the migrant workers for 2019, we can run it for a year [on the existing crop], and the year after we would close.”

The job cuts come as the company expands its raspberry and blueberry business in Yunnan province in south China.

The farm’s marketing manager Ralph Dickinson told The Independent the farm was not “outsourcing” growing to China and flying crops back to the UK, but was capitalising on increasing Asian demand for berries.

But he said British farmers are having to adjust their businesses amid a lack of clarity on the impact of Brexit.

Mr Dickinson said: “We are heavily reliant on workers coming over from eastern Europe to pick our fruit and that’s the same across the agricultural industry. There is such uncertainty about what the implications are for us around Brexit – because there’s not been an adequate answer provided – so we are having to anticipate what we do should there be a large shortfall in workers.

“Our business is based so much on the seasons and we don’t have the luxury of being able to wait when there is fruit that needs to be picked.”

He added: “It’s a problem for the industry as a whole, across the country.”

Mr Davison said he had written to the Prime Minister asking for urgent action to address the situation, but she has not replied.

The job cuts come as other British farmers have been forced to leave tens of thousands of pounds worth of vegetables to rot in their fields due to labour shortages resulting from Brexit.

The UK farming industry is dependent on pickers from the EU, particularly those from eastern Europe. Britain’s low unemployment rate and the seasonal nature of the work makes it difficult to attract domestic workers.

But the fall in the value of sterling against the Euro since the Brexit vote, means the UK has become less attractive to seasonal workers from Romania and Bulgaria.

A Brexit deal restricting freedom of movement would leave them with even fewer people to help harvest their crops and has led to calls for the return of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (SAWS) which ended in 2013. The scheme granted work permits to people from outside the EU who could come to the UK on a temporary basis.

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