Grower hopes eastern Europeans laid off from other sectors may help to plug UK-wide hole in seasonal farm workforce
PUBLISHED: 17:20 25 March 2020 | UPDATED: 17:20 25 March 2020
James Foskett Farms
East Anglian growers who rely on seasonal workers say they are “extremely concerned” about the effects the coronavirus crackdown is having on recruiting pickers and packers.
But large-scale vegetable grower James Foskett is hoping that eastern European workers laid off from the UK’s leisure and hospitality industry because of the crisis may help to plug the gap.
The farmer, who grows a number of labour-intensive organic crops including carrots, radishes, butternut squash, green beans, garden peas, mangetout and sweetcorn, as well as potatoes and onions, at Bromeswell, near Woodbridge, admitted he had been struggling to make the numbers as a result of the crisis and subsequent European lockdown.
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“I have actually got 35 Romanians on board at the moment – I have got a few more this week, but I don’t think I’ll be able to get through any more,” he said.
“We have had some since January/February – a hard core putting fleece on crops and things like that.”
Currently, he was carrying a few more workers than he needed for the next week or two but he was willing to keep them on in order to have them available when he needed them, he said.
“The rest of them, I was really worried. I didn’t think I would get enough, but there are so many eastern Europeans who have been laid off from the leisure industry I think I’ll be able to pick them up.”
He’s already received a phone call from a Lithuanian who lost his leisure and hospitality job and was looking for work, he said.
“I think we might be OK, because last week I was seriously considering cutting down a lot of our cropping on the organic because I wouldn’t be able to weed it.”
The organic crops needed a lot of care, with hand weeding and picking, he explained, but even on the conventional side, crops like potatoes needed to be hand graded. There was also fleece to lay to help the crops along and that also needed to be removed later on, he said.
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“We are pretty busy – at the moment I’m OK, I have just got my fingers crossed I’ll have some other people.”
Although he was taking on a young student from the UK to help at harvest time, for the most part, the work required skill, practice, dexterity and a high level of fitness. This was difficult for many UK workers to match, he explained, although he was very open to recruiting home-grown staff if they were able to cope with the challenging demands of the job.
Chris Newenham of Tiptree Jams, which grows its own fruit, said it was following latest government advice and taking a “cautious and pragmatic” approach during the crisis.
“We have seen a significant change in demand for certain of our products and we will be adjusting how we run elements of our business over the coming days and weeks. It is a fluid situation, and we will adapt with balanced and appropriate measures as circumstances evolve,” he said.
“Our fruit harvest will be in full swing from early June. While we are currently concerned about the ability of our usual seasonal workers to travel, we are actively considering options for our furloughed colleagues (those temporarily laid off from other sectors) to come and support us in this seasonal effort.”
In 2019, Tiptree had 300 pickers to harvest of its fruit crops, including strawberries and other fruits. It anticipates it will need a similar number for the 2020 harvest.
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Suffolk county adviser Charles Hesketh, who leads on horticulture in the region, said growers who relied on seasonal workers were extremely concerned about the impact coronavirus measures may have on their ability to recruit workers this year.
“Seasonal workers fulfil a hugely important role in East Anglia, helping to pick, pack and grade our fruit and vegetables,” he said.
“The industry is already working hard to promote available roles locally, recognising that this could help those who unfortunately find themselves out of work. We are also urging the government to address this situation as soon as possible and to implement any solution as a matter of urgency.”
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