BRAUNTON, England (Reuters) - Thousands of Britons have answered the call for backbreaking work on the country’s fruit and vegetable farms this summer as the coronavirus crisis keeps Eastern European workers away but it may still not be enough to secure the harvest.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) says 70,000 to 80,000 jobs need to be filled and the clock is ticking. Already asparagus and cucumbers are being picked, in May it’s strawberries, raspberries and spring onions, then in June peas and beans.
A shortage of labor could mean millions of tonnes of fruit and vegetables are left unpicked in British fields or composted.
For a decade the industry has been almost totally reliant on seasonal migrant workers from European Union member states Romania and Bulgaria taking short-term jobs that British workers don’t want to do.
Even before the lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed by governments across Europe to curb the spread of the coronavirus, British farmers were having to adapt to tougher labor conditions following the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
While the health emergency has greatly exacerbated the supply of foreign workers, it has, however, also created a giant labor pool in Britain, as workers have been laid off or furloughed, students released months before their normal summer holidays and low-risk prisoners freed from jails.
Recruitment agencies have seen a surge in interest, though some farmers remain wary based on their previous experience with British workers.
“Whenever we’ve had locals come they last a couple of days or a week,” said Alex Myatt from her farm in Kent, southeast England. “In three years we haven’t had one local person last a season.”
Myatt said her family-owned fruit farm had received more than 700 applications for seasonal labor, including from chefs, construction workers and film and theater workers.
The farm typically employs 180 people at the peak of the season and is still hopeful that some Romanian workers will return, with a few flights starting to arrive in the UK.
Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, a labor agency charity that is one of Britain’s biggest recruiters of agricultural workers, said the response to its “Feed the Nation” campaign had been “phenomenal” to date, with applicants from every corner of the country and every industry.
But though vacancies for April have been filled she anticipates a future shortage.
“As the harvesting season begins for the vast majority of farms and crops from May onwards we still have thousands of roles available for people who are in need of a job,” she said.
Some 36,000 people have registered interest and over 6,000 have conducted a video interview, she said. But over the last 10 days, while nearly 900 people have been offered jobs, only 112 have agreed contracts.
Mark Bridgeman, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said British workers would eventually return to their normal jobs once the lockdown eases.
“As things start being unlocked that will be the challenge,” he said.
For those Britons who do take a job, sticking with it, day-in, day-out, through the harvest season will be hard graft.
“Yesterday was very tough, the backs of your legs are aching, the bottom of your back. But after a couple of weeks you get used to it, your legs stretch,” said Craig O’Brien, a bricklayer before the lockdown who has just started picking asparagus at David Hartnoll’s farm in Devon, southwest England.
“I’ve got three children so I need to be working,” he said, adding that while he has picked before, it’s not a job for everyone. “You’ve really got it in you or you haven’t.”
Reporting by Natalie Thomas and James Davey; Editing by Gareth Jones