From the chairman: 84 days to go and an uncertainty remains over seasonal workers

In her latest blog, NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board chairman Ali Capper looks at the challenges facing growers with a lack of certainty over seasonal workers and future tariff and border controls, compounded with the added worry of further COVID-19 lockdown restrictions affecting markets.

As I write this on 9 October, there are just 84 days until the end of the year which means only 58 working days. We have all got used to the fact that we have to run our businesses under a cloud of uncertainty over the past few years, but it is remarkable how many questions are still unanswered so close to the Brexit transition period coming to an end.

I’m sure many of us thought the outbreak of COVID-19 may have brought some common sense and a further extension of the transition period so that governments around the EU could focus on protecting their people, rather than rushing through a UK/EU trade deal. But, alas, this was not the case.

Top of most growers’ lists is getting clarity on a seasonal worker scheme for 2021. NFU President, Minette Batters, pressed the Secretary of State for Defra on this yet again in an interview earlier this week, but I was not convinced in his response that the urgency of the matter is being taken seriously enough by government.

The NFU has worked incredibly hard to ensure that the case is well evidenced and understood so it is incredibly frustrating that a decision still seems some way away. We will not let the matter drop!

Horticulture members: Help us make the case on seasonal labour by completing this survey (closing date 18 October).

Perhaps less on some growers’ minds, but with significant impacts nonetheless, is the impact future trading arrangements with the EU will have on tariffs and border controls. Deal or no-deal, there will be friction and we have made the case that plants and fresh produce must be treated as a priority to ensure they are not delayed in transit and wasted as a result.

In fact, if the UK government doesn’t support the sector with sufficient access to labour, we will dishearteningly be more reliant on imports than ever before. It is the worst of both worlds; lower UK production and extra costs and delays for imports. I do not say this lightly when I imagine a potential shortage of fresh, healthy fruit and veg unless the government gets the policies right.

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On my own farm, I continue to worry about the future of the UK hops sector. Having lost significant sales during the pub and restaurant shut down in late spring, and further restrictions at the moment, I dread the impact if, as is now being discussed, the sector is shut down once again.

The NFU has worked closely with the British Hop Association and growers in measuring the impacts and assessing the future challenges. We will continue to keep a very close eye on matters as they unfold.

In some ways, there has been an upside to the changing buying habits over the last six months. Retail sales remain very strong and with over three quarters of UK fresh produce being sold through major retailers, businesses have had a good level of demand. Similarly, despite a shutdown of garden centres in spring, sales have been very strong since re-opening and many of the losses have been recovered. This is not true for everyone and individual businesses will be impacted in different ways. If you feel your market, or crop sector, has been particularly hit, please do let us know so that we can ensure it is firmly on our radar.

By the time I write my next article, I sincerely hope some of the questions above have been answered. Time will tell.

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