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Short-term labour shortages on cards for Suffolk and Norfolk farms post-Brexit

PUBLISHED: 09:36 31 January 2020 | UPDATED: 10:00 31 January 2020

5,000 people across Suffolk and Norfolk have jobs in poultry meat processing  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

5,000 people across Suffolk and Norfolk have jobs in poultry meat processing Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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East Anglia's farmers are set to count the cost of Brexit with a labour squeeze and higher costs - although there will be opportunities to develop stronger domestic supply chains, a report suggests.

The poultry sector across Norfolk and Suffolk employs a lot of EU labour  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNThe poultry sector across Norfolk and Suffolk employs a lot of EU labour Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

A New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP)-commissioned study - published in January 2020 - looks at the potential impacts of Brexit on a range of sectors, including farming.

Report authors Metro-Dynamics found that the two counties had a large and growing agricultural industry, which was heavily labour-dependent in some areas.

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It also found that 60% of the sector's exports - amounting to £300m in 2015 - went to the European Union.

A tenth of jobs across the two counties - about 74,000 - were in agriculture-related industries and between 2016 and 2018, that workforce grew by 8%. In total, Norfolk and Suffolk is home to around 9,400 businesses in the sector. Among the companies cited in the report were meat giants Cranswick, British Sugar, Gressingham Foods, Place UK, Kinnerton, Fram Farmers, Bernard Matthews, Kettle Foods, and Muntons.

Many jobs were concentrated in the meat sector, with 5,000 in poultry processing, and 3,000 in meat and poultry production, and thousands of others across a range of professional activities, veterinary services and research.

Imports will become more expensive, the report, entitled Potential implications of Brexit for Norfolk and Suffolk, makes clear - both because of a fall in the value of Sterling and because of tariffs, which are typically passed onto consumers. But that does mean companies will have an incentive to source from local markets.

UK exports, meanwhile, will become less competitive, particularly in agriculture and manufacturing, only partially offset by a devalued pound.

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European Union (EU) nationals make up an estimated 98% of temporary workers in agriculture, the study states, against a backdrop of unfilled vacancies. Food manufacturers are heavily reliant of EU migrant labour, it said, with EU nationals representing 30% of the labour force in food production, and a hefty 60% of the poultry meat industry. "Sourcing these jobs domestically is considered problematic due to their perceived undesirability," it said.

The UK is likely to suffer labour shortages, which could reduce production and result in more imports, but in the longer term it might encourage agriculture businesses to invest in capital and technology.

Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies on average account for 55% of a farm's total income, and other EU grants funded many diversification and productivity measures on farms.

"Removing CAP payments without a replacement scheme would result in substantial farm closures, lost output and disruption," it warned.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of New Anglia LEP, said the point of commissioning the report was to ensure the body was as well-informed as it could be about the likely implications of Brexit on local businesses.

"It highlights concerns over the supply of seasonal labour. These types of roles are often filled by EU nationals and it is likely that there will be some short term labour shortages," he acknowledged.

"However, we hope that may, in the longer term, encourage businesses to invest in capital equipment and new technology.

"One of the roles the LEP plays is to work with government to ensure future regulatory agreements benefit our key sectors, including agri-food.

"We'll also provide businesses with support to continue to grow, helping them enter new domestic markets or capitalise on a weaker pound.

"We have a team of business advisers who are out every day speaking to local businesses and making sure they benefit from the opportunities which Brexit may present, as well as tackling new challenges."

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