For decades, the British farming industry has relied on a migrant workforce, largely from Eastern Europe to harvest its crops. However, travel restrictions implemented as a response to Covid-19 has caused a significant shortage of workers leading farmers to appeal to the domestic workforce in order to deal with the labour shortage. A change in the population’s eating habits is said to have exacerbated the situation with the entire nation forced to eat in rather than out and many accused of “stockpiling” food as a response to the pandemic. The National Farmers' Union (NFU) says up to 70,000 fruit and vegetable pickers are needed, with peak demand coming at the end of May and start of June.
Appeals have targeted students and graduates alongside people laid off work due to coronavirus with many farmers using social media as a platform to advertise jobs. The government has launched “Pick for Britain” - a central online recruitment hub designed for fruit and vegetable growers to advertise their job vacancies for this year’s harvest. Whilst thousands responded to the initial call, it has widely been reported that only a few hundred have taken up jobs. The physical demands of this type of work is one of the reasons why farm work has proved unpopular with the British workforce in the past and there are concerns that the nature of the work will put people off now.
There is a still some uncertainty as to whether there will be enough domestic cover to cope with the seasonal shortage. Looking ahead, some have questioned whether this recent recruitment drive will have a lasting long-term impact on the composition of the workforce in the industry, particularly in light of possible changes to immigration rules following Brexit. Whatever the outcome, it is hoped that one way or another this labour crisis may harvest some positives by educating the country about farm work and its crucial role in the UK economy.
In an asparagus field on the edge of the North York Moors an unlikely group of people are harvesting crops.