Why Putin’s war is forcing British farmers to look further afield

To plug the gap, countries as far away as Nepal, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are now expected to provide the bulk of the seasonal agricultural workers, likely to be in their thousands this year. Some agencies are seeking to redeploy some of their networks in those countries, leading to new hires starting to trickle in on farms.

But it may not be enough. Concerns are mounting that Britain will run low on staff, who are crucial to the UK’s food and farming industries, as they may not be able to arrive on time.

Fisher says: “We’re quite early yet, we’re only in May. The crunch will come when the fruit season starts. ”

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee warned last month that labor shortages in the food and farming sector, owing to the Ukraine crisis, were not yet “heading anyone’s agenda, or at the forefront of anyone’s mind” but that it should be.

“It is also possible that the UK immigration system will be under additional pressure due to this conflict,” they added.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Government extended the visas of Ukrainians who were already here as seasonal workers. This has provided some relief as recruitment companies have been able to shift people around.

As new recruits from Asia fill some of the gaps, one challenge that fruit and vegetable growers are likely to face is their lack of experience, which could slow production down.

“Workers are so much more productive when they know what they’re doing; if everyone is new, it’s harder to get going, ”says one industry source.

“It’s going to be quite challenging for farmers, not having that level of productivity this year – the return rate will be lower because of the war in Ukraine.”

Those in the industry say an employee who returns to a farm is roughly 30pc more productive than someone new. Meanwhile, though it is thought machines could eventually replace human fruit pickers, current models are too clumsy to be of use yet, and easily bruise soft fruits such as strawberries and raspberries.

One recruitment agency says their quest to find domestic labor is unabatedbut the interest they receive is typically only for part-time work or “Tuesday mornings” which is untenable.

“Growers can’t work like that, it’s a proper operation and if you don’t have your labor sorted you can’t harvest your crops,” they add.

In December, following labor shortages last year over Brexit and the pandemic, officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) extended the seasonal workers visa until 2024, with farmers having access to 30,000 visas.

It has said that number might increase by a further 10,000 during 2022 “if necessary” – the subject of intense lobbying by various stakeholders. Defra did not comment.

Last year’s labor shortages over the summer led to some crops being unharvested and left to rot in fields, while healthy pigs were culled. The number of vacancies in the sector was estimated to be 500,000, equivalent to a 12.5pc vacancy rate described as a “chronic” labor shortage.

While an influx of seasonal workers from as far as Uzbekistan or Nepal could help prevent a repeat scenario, the UK could be jostling for recruits.

Last year, Australia invited more than 10,000 south-east Asians to pick fruit and vegetables under a new visa to help tackle their own crippling labor shortage. It is also estimated that thousands of farm workers from south Asia are working in Portugal’s £ 200m berry industry, picking fruit that will be sold in supermarkets across Europe.

In the words of one UK farmer: “What I can hope for is that this year’s experience will be very positive [for the new cohort] and next year they can all come back. “


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