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Partner at Langleys Solicitors, Newark, looks at how UK could meet demand for seasonal workers to pick this season’s harvest

As farmers will well recall, the threat of a lack of pickers and packers for the 2020 fruit and vegetable harvest was all too real, writes Amy Cowdrell, of Langleys Solicitors, Newark.

Government and organisations such as the National Farmers’ Union responded to this challenge by launching the Feed Our Nation campaign, which encouraged people, such as students and those on furlough, to put themselves forward to work on local farms to help out with the 2020 harvest.

There was an overwhelming response to the call for help. However, with the UK leaving the EU last month and the end of freedom of movement, the problem of limited seasonal workers for the 2021 harvest has returned.

Amy Cowdell. (13533851)
Amy Cowdell. (13533851)

The government is set to launch a 2021 Pick For Britain campaign to encourage domestic workers to sign up, but is it enough in order to deal with the lack of non-domestic pickers and packers for this year’s harvest?

Listening to those concerns, the government announced in late December that they would extend the Seasonal Worker’s Pilot for this year’s harvest, expanding the quota to 30,000 places ­— an increase from 10,000 in the previous year.

The initial Seasonal Worker’s Pilot was launched in March 2019, allowing a limited number of migrant workers into the UK to work on farms to deliver the harvest. Workers were allowed to stay for a maximum of six months before returning to their home countries.

The expanded pilot will be run on the same basis, but due to the increase in numbers, two more operators will be appointed to provide the workers.

The pilot is designed to alleviate shortages in the workforce, but not supply all necessary labour required to pick the 2021 harvest.

Through data collection the government reports that 50,000 workers are employed annually for the harvest season.

The aim is for domestic workers to then make up the difference of 20,000.

There is no doubt that the Seasonal Worker’s Pilot is a short-term fix while the UK finds better ways to deal with the increasing short supply of pickers and packers.

The government is keen to develop new technologies that will allow farms to bring in their harvest without so much reliance on human capital.

We saw in the Agricultural Transition Plan that weight was given to government grants to invest in technology. The aim is to increase efficiencies and at the same time improve profitability of farming businesses.

Defra will be leading a review of horticultural automation shortly, looking specifically at how the process can be automated and taken forward to reduce the reliance on non-domestic workers.

It is clear that UK consumers are hungry (apologies for the inadvertent pun) for more of the food we eat to be home grown.

This not only allows us to support British farmers, but also helps to reduce the carbon footprint of the products we consume.

Technological investment in automation and robotics in horticulture have the potential to open up the sector to new possibilities. However, it will be essential for the engineers to have knowledge and experience of the sector while developing these products.

As a Canadian chief executive of an AgTech company reported to the AHDB in 2019: “not knowing the customer, the operation or the industry can result in building a Lamborghini when a bicycle can do the job!”

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