Buds are breaking on the Valor plum trees and hurrah, the blackthorn is in full blossom so the pollinators can get to work. These are our free workers so we try to make sure pollen is available early on by planting goat willow and keeping some of the hedges uncut for their early blossom. More on the importance of biodiversity later as what is more pressing is organising our 2017 harvest workers. Like all farmers we rely on seasonal labour to harvest our crops. In our case this means a group of Bulgarians who come every year for 3-5 months. Who works here has recently become a topic of heated discussion as Brexit and immigration hit the headlines. There are those who oppose this “immigration” and those who believe we should employ our local unemployed. The situation is not so simple and these are some of the issues as I see them.
The reality is no first world country harvests it own produce! It was not always thus. In the corner of our orchards there is a brick chimney with a fire range and hearth, the only remains of a building which apparently was used by the migrant workers and their families who came from South Wales with their families to harvest and earn some cash for the winter months. In our time we have had travellers here to harvest who start their harvest work in the daffodil fields of Cornwall and work their way north and end up in Denmark for the strawberry harvest. Local women used to pick fruit for pin money as usually married women stayed at home and did not have full time jobs. Times have changed however and women want full time work. Culturally, we are no longer used to, or we dislike outdoor physical labour and our benefit system does not encourage those who might take on this work. Our young students prefer to go off and harvest pineapples in Australia (my generation thought it was exotic to go to France to harvest grapes ) and not apples in Gloucestershire. Last but not least the supply chain for all fresh products has become more demanding and complex as supermarkets compete to offer a wide choice of fruits.
We must have committed skilled labour on site for the harvest period available to work long hours in the orchards or in the packhouse. They have to skill up quickly and work fast – many are paid piece rate although we pay by the hour. We are driven by daily orders, the weather and the precise specification for the fruit: size, ripeness, shape, colour, skin finish….. Harvest is a crucial time and so growers have sensibly found a reliable committed labour force which now comes from outside the UK. They live on site and can therefore work the hours dictated by the weather and orders. Our hard-working group of Bulgarians come from a ski area – fine for employment in winter but not in Summer. As part of the EU they have been able to come here and earn well and go home back to their families and their winter work. This seasonal influx should not be confused with immigration. There must be a revival of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme to allow in harvest workers if crops are going to be picked. In total UK growers need about 75000 workers. Not so easy with Brexit as the weak pound means the value of wages has decreased by 15%. Also they no longer feel very welcome here and could prefer to work in mainland Europe. We need to recognise their value and contribution in every way or risk losing our capacity to supply and process at least some of our own fresh produce. Without these workers we will be forced to import more fruit and the economy of our rural agricultural areas will suffer. Tricky times.