As lockdown eases, NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Chairman, Ali Capper, looks at the challenges for the sector including reopening markets, access to labour, business costs, and quarantine rules.
It has been 14 weeks since lockdown began on 23 March and we are starting to see industries opening back up. There are significant benefits to this, but also some further challenges.
First of all, I am delighted to finally see pubs and restaurants being able to re-open on 4 July. Not only does this help open up food service channels, but also enables ‘on-trade’ sales of beers and cider which our hop and cider apple growers have so desperately needed.
This is in addition to fast food restaurants that have already began opening up (most notably McDonald's) and garden centres a few weeks ago. Of course, this doesn’t make up for the significant losses incurred during the key market closures and the impacts from it will be felt for a very long time. The food service sector, for example, isn’t expected to return to normal levels for two or more years, meaning growers that have long term contracts or perennial crops will be particularly affected.
We continue to gather and share evidence with Defra on the impacts for our sector. This is an ever evolving picture and it is important we continue to reassess where we are at any given time.
Further evidence has been submitted for the ornamentals, hops and cider apple sectors over the last couple of weeks and discussions continue over how these impacts can be mitigated to ensure our members have the ability and the confidence to grow next year and beyond.
A challenge that lockdown relaxation creates is that furloughed workers are returning to their normal jobs and leaving farms at the height of the picking season.
Members are reporting to us up to 50% turnover of their UK workers with many leaving within the first two weeks. Fortunately, travel movements across the EU are easing and the seasonal worker pilot scheme is back up and running after visas offices re-opened. But what this all means is that we continue to be heavily reliant on overseas workers to fill our seasonal roles.
We are working hard to remind the government, who may feel that this year has shown domestic recruitment is feasible in future, that every developed country across the world relies on overseas workers for seasonal work and this year has shown us exactly why this is the case.
Further challenges for our members are the introduction of quarantine rules which, while seasonal workers have a partial exemption, have created significant extra costs for farming businesses.
These are in addition to the extra recruitment costs from a higher turnover of staff; additional training costs; social distancing measures; cleaning regimes and so on.
The NFU, British Growers Association, British Apples and Pears, and British Summer Fruits commissioned a report to understand what these additional costs mean for horticulture businesses.
The report shows a 6% to 15% increase in COVID-related labour costs on top of the 34% wage increases seen over the last 5 years. This is unsustainable and growers cannot take on these costs alone. The report is available on NFUonline and I would encourage you to read it and share it with your customers.
Only with fair returns can UK growers come out the other side of the coronavirus crisis with a viable future – our consumers wouldn’t forgive the supply chain for allowing high quality British produce to disappear from our shelves!
You might also be interested in:
- COVID-19 adds up to 15% on labour costs, new report shows
- 'Majority of ornamental businesses badly affected by the ongoing impacts of COVID-19'
- NFU responds to Shortage Occupation List consultation
- Checklist: What do seasonal workers need to do when they arrive in the UK?
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