Lack of labour must be addressed with action

Martin Emmett

Martin Emmett

NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board chair

First published: 16 November 2022

A picture of Martin Emmett tending plants outside in his nursery

Words from government might sound encouraging, but now is the time for action. NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board chair Martin Emmett outlines the issues that need addressing to keep the horticulture sector flourishing. 

The importance of the horticulture sector has never been in doubt.

Collectively, we provide the foods that our health depends on and the plants and flowers that our environment thrives on. And for years, whenever we hear from retailer CEOs or politicians, we hear that they understand how valuable our sector is and that we, as British growers, deserve to be championed.

The words are always warm, but the reality is less so.

Consolidation in the UK horticulture sector has been driven by a lack of fair returns, a lack of government investment, and policies that seek to provide cheap food wherever it comes from.

Rising costs and workforce shortages impact horticulture sector

This week, the NFU published the latest report from Promar International, identifying unprecedented cost inflation in the sector of up to 27%.

As this was evaluated from a sample of growers, it’s inevitable that some growers are experiencing even higher inflation. 

Worryingly, but not surprisingly, it also highlighted that most growers are failing to secure sufficient increases from their customers to mitigate this inflation, and are either cutting production or continuing to operate at a loss. 

The gap between retailer public statements and buyer behaviour seems wider than ever.

In response, the NFU has written to CEOs of all the major retailers calling on them to ensure buyers deal with cost inflation requests fairly and in a timely manner.

Seasonal Worker Scheme must be addressed

In parallel, we’re also asking the government to remove the economic barriers that are exacerbating this difficult situation.

Labour shortages are still biting and if it isn’t inflation that’s driving down production, then it is a lack of labour.

The political merry-go-round has caused significant delays, and any hopes of an announcement of an expanded scheme for 2023 are fading.

The NFU is asking for the cap on the scheme to be removed, and for it to be guaranteed for a minimum of a five-year rolling programme. Only then will the economic barrier be truly removed.

NFU Deputy President Tom Bradshaw is also writing to Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick amid concerns over visas for seasonal workers in the future. Members are being urged to sign the letter before 29 November 2022.

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Recognition of fragility

Similarly, the short term commitment on the Energy Relief Scheme has done nothing to create confidence for UK growers.  The NFU is calling for agriculture and horticulture to be classified as a vulnerable sector so that longer term energy price support is secured.
 
I do not dismiss the positive rhetoric from policy makers around our sector, but it is certainly time for the supply chain and government to back up their words with actions.

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