NFU horticulture and potatoes adviser Emily Roads reflects on a successful day at Fruit Focus where key horticultural issues such as access to labour and the future ambition for the sector were key discussion topics:
The sun was out in Kent as fruit growers and industry representatives flocked to the NIAB EMR site - a horticultural and agricultural research institute at East Malling, Kent - for Fruit Focus 2019. There was plenty to see, from machinery designed specifically for orchards and vineyards, the latest berry varieties and NIAB EMR’s strawberry ice sculpture which amazingly withstood the sun and stayed intact all day. The highlights were the two NFU panels in the Fruit Forum tents, which brought politicians, growers and industry representatives together to discuss the hot topics of labour and productivity in front of a packed audience.
A productive and profitable future
The first panel focused on the ambition for our sector to grow and become more productive and profitable in the future. Chaired by NFU chief horticulture and potatoes adviser Lee Abbey, this panel hosted Minister for Farming Robert Goodwill MP, NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Ali Capper, and AHDB's head of horticulture knowledge exchange Dr Debbie Wilson. It was fantastic to have Mr Goodwill there, as he discussed various initiatives in this area, from the recently announced food strategy to reiterating the importance of the Agriculture Bill, which he stated paves the way for many great opportunities for farming. We also heard first-hand from Ali Capper about the potential for the industry to continue to grow through fit for purpose productivity schemes. This gives the sector the opportunity to increase its market share, as well as increase exports of British produce. Dr Wilson, a year on from her last appearance at Fruit Focus, updated on the progress of SmartHort. This was an opportunity for Mr Goodwill to understand the initiatives the industry is undertaking itself to share knowledge and best practice via SmartHort strategic centres and engagement with academic experts.
Access to seasonal labour
The issue of labour access was kept in focus throughout the discussion, not least in the follow up questions where Mr Goodwill explained that a successful Seasonal Workers Pilot would see the participants effectively undertake the work, and ensure that they left when their six months were over. This led into the second session, entitled 'Future Immigration Policy and What it Means for Horticulture', chaired by Ali Capper. On this panel we hosted CEO of Concordia Stephanie Maurel, who gave a useful insight into the successes and challenges they had faced operating the pilot and what was needed going forward, including the expansion of the pilot to ensure adequate preparation. This was echoed by grower David Long as he discussed the many gambles growers must take, and ensuring sufficient labour access should not be one of them.
Defra's head of seasonal labour Steph Sloan gave a useful overview of the current proposals for a future immigration policy, and the current engagement process, which the NFU is taking an active role in. The session was rounded off by Helen Whately MP, who is Chair for the APPG on Fruit and Vegetable Farming. It was encouraging to hear that, despite the difficulties she had faced in getting government to listen to the message, Mrs Whately would continue to fight for an effective and adequate policy which ensured seasonal access to labour for growers, and this would be taken as a priority by the APPG to the new Prime Minister.
Highlight issues through face-to-face conversation
Both panels proved to be a great success, with great attendance and lots of pertinent questions from the audience. We were lucky enough to have Mr Goodwill in attendance for the whole morning — after launching the new NIAB EMR strawberry varieties and viewing the WET centre he joined us for a meeting with growers. This provided the opportunity for growers to speak directly to the minster about the issues they face, including labour, but also water access and management, and the need for greater investment in research and development, particularly in breeding and variety development. After a robust discussion Mr Goodwill joined Berry Gardens for lunch, before leaving with a good selection of the delicious produce you all grow.
All in all the day was a real success, providing the vital opportunity for politicians to hear directly from growers and ensure that they are in no doubt of the importance of their concerns, and the vibrancy, ambition and success of our sector.