Ali Capper: Wrapping things up before Christmas

First published: 20 December 2021

In her last Christmas update as NFU Horticulture and potatoes board chair, Ali Capper looks back at the many challenges of 2021, from the fate of the AHDB through all of those consultations and the ongoing issues around the seasonal worker scheme. We continue to be kept on our toes.

This will be my last Christmas newsletter to you all as I will be standing down as Chairman of the Board in March.

This makes this my 6th Christmas writing to NFU members as Chair – they seem to have flown by what with a referendum, Brexit and then Covid!

At the end of another challenging and frustrating year, there are a plethora of issues that appear, finally, to be reaching some form of conclusion – whether it's the commitment for a longer-term seasonal worker scheme (which, we are told, will be announced imminently), or much-needed changes to the costs and frequencies of import inspections, or the conclusion of the long and unnecessarily drawn-out process for determining the post-AHDB future.

It’s amazing to think that with the AHDB ballots having concluded in February this year, it is only now in December that proposals are being made for how the legislation will be altered.

For those growers that no longer wish to pay the levy, it will be welcome news that Defra intends to deliver on the ballot results.

For those growers and subsectors that have been seeking an alternative funding structure, the proposal to remove horticulture and potatoes entirely from the Statutory Instrument is a blow.

If a subsector were to secure a mandate from its growers to set up a new fund, this will take considerable time and will delay important research.

AHDB consultation

The NFU is currently exploring options for some form of mechanism to be retained so that growers can opt in, should a viable proposal be made by subsectors of horticulture.

It is imperative that you respond to the consultation by 10 January.

If you are unsure how to respond, consider speaking to your crop association or contact the horticulture team at the NFU. It's important to take part – Consultation on changes to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

One consultation after another

We also now have a consultation on the frequency of inspections for plant imports.

It changes little, with most ‘plants for planting’ remaining at 100% inspection despite decades of trade with the EU.

However, a second consultation on the fees charged for those inspections may provide some relief; with the NFU calling for a more balanced fee structure that sees the costs more evenly shared across the industry. This would be a significant win for the NFU if it is secured.

Like the proverbial bus, another consultation has just been launched on phasing out the use of peat from amateur use (bagged compost) with further questions over a longer-term phasing out for commercial use.

The NFU is a member of the Growing Media Taskforce which has been setting its own ambitious targets for phasing out peat use, but we’re calling for government support into researching the alternatives and for there to be exemptions where a total ban is unrealistic.

That remains one of the key challenges for the NFU; to ensure government is realistic in its approaches and objectives.

Looking at labour

For labour, the continued view of the Home Office that we should transition away from using overseas workers in preference for domestic workers is naive at best.

Two years of enhanced recruitment activities have done little to increase our domestic recruitment. We will not stop trying, but we must be realistic that it will never replace a migrant seasonal workforce.

Automation has a greater opportunity to do so, but not in significant numbers and not for many more years.

As I write this, the announcement on the continuation of the seasonal worker scheme still hasn’t been made, though we have heard enough to be sure it is coming.

The inclusion of the ornamentals sector in the scheme will be a massive achievement and one the NFU has been pushing incredibly hard over the last few years.

We had evidence coming out of our ears this year and it seems it has managed to tip the balance. I am concerned, however, that the total number of visas will still fall way short of what is needed, so we already have plans in place to seek a further expansion.

As we reach the year end, I hope you manage to avoid covid, get some much needed rest and enjoy the festivities with your friends and families.

Happy Christmas.

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