Win a picker

Dig for Victory was one of the great slogans of World War Two, and now the coronavirus crisis has produced Pick for Britain

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How hard can it be to pick a strawberry? “Unless you want to give a load of mushy ones to mum for making jam it’s quite difficult work,” says Janet Oldroyd, one of Yorkshire’s biggest soft fruit growers.

“We either get the English workers or we don’t pick the crops. They would just go to waste.”

This has caused her a huge headache. The polytunnels on her farm at Rothwell between Leeds and Wakefield, where this most English of summer fruit grows, would normally employ a skilled labour force of around 70 seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. But the lockdown has left her scratching around for help with the strawberry harvest when it begins in the next few weeks.

“We’re desperately worried we’re not going to get our fruit picked. There’s training involved and it takes maybe a couple of weeks to learn the skill and build up a head of steam, but you can either do it or you can’t. Some folks are a bit ham-fisted and I’ve found it’s younger people who tend to make the best pickers.”

Oldroyd is just one of many farmers struggling to fill a total of 70,000 agricultural jobs in the UK this year because of the coronavirus crisis. The big challenge comes now the strawberry and raspberry crops are nearly ready for picking. Although much of this takes place in Kent, Hampshire and the Tayside region of Scotland there are some large growers in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Oldroyd’s other main crop, forced rhubarb, was being picked just as the lockdown was announced and hotels and restaurants, which make up the main custom for the product, were closing their doors. This had a “disastrous” effect on her business, she says, and the last thing she needs now is unpicked strawberries.

A plea in local media for workers brought an avalanche of 500 applicants, but most were unsuitable. A high percentage had been furloughed from their jobs and she felt she couldn’t make the regulations on them taking a second job work for her. Others were from 16 year olds but employment law means they can work only a 35-hour week, which at the height of the picking season would be exceeded. Also, applicants were from as far apart as York and Halifax, posing an insurmountable problem of getting them to and from the farm.

Rachael Gillbanks of the local National Farmers Union (NFU) tells of another strawberry grower encountering the problem of not having the workforce resident on or near the farm, as is usually the case with migrant pickers. In warmer weather they work very early in the morning because it’s not good for the berries to be picked in the heat of the day or for the pickers to be inside polytunnels in hot conditions. “Later they pick again in the evening when things cool down, so that requires a workforce living on the spot or nearby. It’s a real challenge
to growers.”

Up at Thirsk in North Yorkshire, farmer Tom Spilman managed to find workers to bring in his asparagus and strawberries only after putting out a post on Facebook. He had no alternative, he says. “We either get the English workers or we don’t pick the crops. They would just go to waste and there’d be empty shelves in the shops. We usually get only one or two Brits who venture into the fields, but they never last long.”

Once, though, agriculture was among Britain’s biggest industries. In 1841 over 20 per cent of jobs were on farms. By the end of the Second World farming still employed 1 million people but the proportion of jobs had dropped to just 5 per cent. Now less than 1 per cent of full-time jobs are on the land.

Most British people are reluctant to graft in fields, and certainly not for the minimum wage, which has left the agricultural industry almost wholly reliant on workers from countries like Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania, who usually live in caravans or chalets next to the farms.

Tom Spilman would normally have 80 or 90 migrant workers at the height of the picking season but this year the majority of those who have picked his asparagus spears are university and school students left with free time after their exams were cancelled.

The NFU in Lancashire has been trying to find workers for local farmers through the government’s Pick for Britain website. Liz Berry, the NFU’s county adviser, says the main crops requiring workers are leeks, lettuce, cabbages and cauliflowers.

“The season doesn’t really kick off until June. Some growers are already having people get in touch with them to say they can come and work, but sadly they are not people who can do it full time.”

She points out that the main difficulty is the level of training involved, both for the skilled job of picking and for health and safety requirements. It is not possible for farmers to train up part-timers who then go back to their day jobs when the lockdown is eased.

Jack Ward of the British Growers Association is not too despondent about the slow start to the search for crop pickers. “It’s important to keep in mind that this will be a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. “The fresh produce harvest in the UK is just getting going and it will run pretty much through to Christmas and beyond. What we want to do is manage a sustained level of interest over that entire period of harvesting.”

There is a danger that publicity given to the need for more jobs on the land will mean that growers are inundated with offers of help this spring, but as soon as the lockdown is relaxed many of those people will start returning to their more usual kind of work.

“We could then find ourselves in a situation during, let’s say, August, when we’re still at the height of the picking season but we need 30,000 workers. I don’t want to see a lot of the people who take up offers of work now and are trained by growers then going back to their original jobs.”

The level of interest in crop picking work has been monitored by the employment website Totaljobs. “Fruit picker” has become its most frequently-occurring search term, used almost 53,000 times in one week – an increase of 78 per cent on the previous week. “To put that in context,” says Steve Warnham of Totaljobs, “searches for fruit picking work in the whole of 2019 amounted to just 1,200”.

Use of other search terms like “farm” and “farm workers” has doubled. “But we’re seeing that people aren’t just searching but are applying for the jobs as well,” adds Warnham. “Last week there was a 27 per cent increase in applications for jobs in the agricultural industry.”

Some workers from Eastern Europe are now returning. There has been at least one flight from Romania to Stansted Airport chartered by an unnamed food company to bring in 180 fruit and vegetable pickers. They were bussed to large farms in Lincolnshire and Essex. More flights are said to be planned although these may be cancelled in view of tough new quarantine rules imposed on people flying into the UK.

Meanwhile, the government’s immigration bill for a post-Brexit world, given initial approval by MPs last week, could make it harder for growers to recruit from overseas.

Jobs on fruit and veg farms can be found at

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