The English Apple Man is very cross...........
As I thoroughly modern man, I follow twitter and other social media forums........
This week a number of important issues effecting the future of UK fruit and other horticultural businesses have been 'aired in public' - some attitudes towards the hard working UK fruit growers 'makes me mad'...........
With Britain's impending departure from the European Union in March 2019, there's been a lot of focus on the threat to UK jobs in sectors such as finance. And while the impact Brexit has on professional services is a concern, uncertainty over the status of EU migrants is pushing aside a vital service industry.
Out of the 85,000 seasonal agricultural workers in the UK, 30,000 or so of them pick fruit. The UK government continually says it will opt out of allowing EU citizens to live and work in the UK without visa requirements, sparking huge concerns for staffing farms for harvest.
This week, one of the biggest growers of berries in the UK, Haygrove's, said it is moving raspberry and blueberry growing to China because of the uncertainty over the status of migrant labour.
Earlier this week I read a tweet 'retweeted' by Jay Rayner circulating the story in the Guardian Newspaper about soft fruit grower Angus Davison's plan to re-locate part of his business to China due to the uncertainty of future availability of harvest labour and the lack of Government clarification on future policies.........
A tweet in response; "So... fruit producers continue to profit from low paid workers. What's new?
To which I angrily tweeted - "What a stupid statement. Workers are NOT low paid!
It never ceases to surprise me when I read an article in prominent (quality??) newspapers detailing facts supporting important issues, which, I like so many take as verbatim.......but when the subject is familiar to me; how often I realise the facts are way off track.........
Negative comments on social media demonstrate perfectly the lack of understanding by many 'twitter' and mainstream journalists of how our fruit industry works..........and a lack of appreciation of what the consequences of Brexit could be...........
Huge investment has been made in the last two decades in UK horticultural production; Soft Fruit, Top Fruit and many other associated industries........the benefit has been a massive improvement in fruit quality while enabling prices to be kept low (in relation to production costs)
It's not just investment in production systems that have driven the expansion of UK produced soft fruit: new varieties are central to reducing production costs......Click on MALLING CENTENARY
Below: Malling Centenary Strawberries
Brexit could signal the death knell for the industry by making it impossible to guarantee that farming companies will find enough people to work in a sector already facing major problems.
According to new survey data from the National Farmers Union (NFU), more than 4,300 vacancies went unfilled at fruit and vegetable farms across the UK last year.
The UK government has pushed for years for more Brits to take these roles. However, in reality, UK citizens don't want them - even if many farms pay more than the minimum wage. A recent documentary outlines how even unemployed British workers didn't want to take the farm jobs, because the work involves getting up too early in the cold.
By taking away the lifeline of the industry-migrant workers-Brexit likely will spell the end for a whole host of agricultural roles across the UK.
Below: An article written by Juliet Samuel for The Telegraph published on 6th February
"There is no better fruit in the world than a ripe, English strawberry. This being my preference, the possibility of a labour shortage brought on by a recovering eurozone and post-Brexit restrictions is probably not in my interests.
Despite the complaints by business though, it may well be in Britain's interests.
Net migration to the UK has now been falling for a year. It fell from an annual rate of 336,000 in the quarter before the Brexit vote to 273,000 in the quarter afterwards and is now down to 230,000. The Brexit hit to Britain's image for welcoming foreigners might be one small factor in this decline, but the main drivers are rather more prosaic.
They are the sharp fall in the value of sterling, which instantly devalued salaries for anyone exchanging their pay packet into another currency and sending it home, and a long overdue recovery taking hold in the eurozone, which has lured workers away.
The picture is more complex than it looks, because some nationalities of European migration have actually increased since the referendum, perhaps due to a rush to get in before the shutters go down. And even though the net inflow has fallen, it's still at historically very high levels and the UK is still employing record numbers of both foreign nationals and UK citizens in its growing workforce.
Still, the moaning from business is getting louder. Last autumn, the National Farmers' Union warned of "serious shortfalls" leading to "serious effects" on farmers that could lead to "serious" knock-on effects on the supply chain. With equal seriousness, the Federation of Master Builders, a trade association for the construction industry, recently declared: "Skills shortages are skyrocketing." And the British Chambers of Commerce has injected a new note of alarm into its warnings, claiming that labour shortages are at a "critical" level.
Code red! Mayday, Mayday! Britain's workers might finally be in for a pay rise!
There is something rather bizarre about these dire warnings, since they come off the back of a period that has seen Britain's highest immigration seen since the arrival of the Saxons. For 20 years, net immigration has been running at well over 150,000, having previously been under 100,000, if not negative. In recent years it has been over 300,000. British businesses have been experiencing a labour supply boom-time not seen since the agricultural revolution. If this is now slowing somewhat, you might think that they would be able to find ways of coping.
The fact that employers are worried speaks to two things: the UK economy's extraordinary ability to generate jobs and our extremely poor record at training people with the skills businesses need. Employment is at record levels, but even as the labour force has swelled in size, workplace training, productivity, investment and wages have all stagnated. In other words, our businesses are now reliant on a flow of cheap labour.
Below: Investments in technology - temperature and humidity sensors........
What they should be doing instead is investing in training the existing workforce and making capital investments in order to do more work with fewer workers.
The English Apple Man Comments: "Clearly Juliet Samuel has written her article from the comfort of her office; with no understanding of the vast investments made by soft fruit growers in production systems designed to deliver high quality fruit and easier picking systems - soft fruit is now almost exclusively grown under tunnels, with table top strawberries grown in growbags or pots - the 'establishment cost' of 1 hectare of table top strawberries (see below) is circa £65,000 just for the material cost; to this add labour costs and circa £80,000 per hectare total - 'and that's before a strawberry has been picked!!!! - The low wage perception is just that, a perception; wages are very good for those with an inclination to work - however, wages will have to rise to compete with the improving economies of EU countries where migrant harvest workers have been sourced (Romania & Bulgaria) and the post Brexit referendum devaluation of sterling!
However, labour shortage is not confined to the UK - Poland, the first to migrate to the UK for harvest work, now has difficulty in attracting harvest workers for home grown crops, as many Pole's cross the border into Germany (the highest wage payer) while Poland seeks harvest workers from Ukraine, the next 'perceived source of harvest labour'......
Below: a modern strawberry production unit with plants grown in plastic pots on table tops.
Juliet Samuel continues - It should not be a surprise that some of the sectors most anxious about labour supply are also our economy's least productive. Agriculture and construction are both long overdue major technological advances that would cut the need for so much labour.
Below: Pot grown strawberries on table tops
Juliet Samuel - The problem is that over time, as they have failed to invest, margins have become so tight that investment becomes increasingly impossible. Unfortunately, this means that the reckoning, when it comes, will be deeply painful. Many businesses simply will not be able to adapt to survive.
This applies particularly to strawberry-picking, which thus far has proved difficult to mechanise. So I may have to pay more for my punnet in the next few years.
Below: "If Juliet wants top quality like these Strawberries (below) she will need pickers as well as investment to fulfil the expectation.........oh, and a deeper purse.......
Below: Driscoll's Maravilla Raspberries.......
Juliet Samuel - The flip side, however, is that UK workers (both British and foreign) stand to benefit. In December, a Bank of England business survey suggested that labour shortages are finally starting to push wages up, after about a decade of stagnation. Anecdotally, managers I've spoken to are reporting a similar phenomenon. They are having to pay up to recruit staff. Given recent trends, that is the way it should be.
It is early days, but this shift also appears to be dragging Britain out of an unusual situation, in which the relationship between employment and wages (the "Phillips curve", a piece of economic orthodoxy) seemed to have broken down. Policymakers were increasingly at a loss for how to explain or address this shift. Perhaps the answer is that it was temporary.
There is a caveat to this, of course. A massive shock to the labour supply would not be a positive development. Businesses that have become used to relying on cheap workers cannot adapt overnight and it takes time for new technology to develop and be introduced. So the Government needs to manage post-Brexit immigration policy carefully to ensure that the changes are not too sudden. It should also give a break to those businesses that do invest in training their workforce and buying new equipment by more generously discounting taxes against capital investment.
Below: Maravilla Raspberries growing in pots in a glasshouse...........great raspberry variety and huge investment..
Juliet Samuel - There are also some sectors that will find it much harder to adapt than others. The care industry, for example, relies heavily on cheap labour and will not easily find ways to substitute machines for workers. Such businesses have already been hit by sharp rises to the minimum wages and enormous local government funding cuts, which has driven down care standards and pushed many firms over the edge.
The Government's whole approach to care needs an overhaul and labour supply and quality should be one factor near the top of the list.
It is understandable for businesses to be anxious about the prospect of sudden, unmanageable changes. But managers should also recognise that labour supply has been on a tear in recent years. It is workers' turn to get their slice of the pie.
Below: Hayley Campbell-Gibbons delivers a riposte............
NFU chief horticulture and potatoes adviser, Hayley Campbell-Gibbons, has written a response to Juliet Samuel's piece in The Telegraph ('Britain must pay the price for living off the fruits of cheap EU workers' - 6 February 2018). She writes:
"I'm not sure what's most disconcerting about Juliet Samuel's diatribe on agriculture's over-reliance on 'cheap' EU workers. That she clearly failed to speak to a grower of her favourite fruit before putting finger to keyboard; or the naivety that if there were machines capable of picking the 250,000 tonnes of British berries we produce, that growers wouldn't already have done it. And there's a third runner for my disconcern. Juliet Samuel accepts that EU nationals must come to the UK in their thousands to work in the care sector on the basis that finding a machine to replace them will be harder to do.
Oh, the care sector is apparently the only one to have been 'hard hit' by the increase in national minimum wage too.
Oh Juliet, if only we'd spoken. Perhaps in the course of your thorough research, you might have picked up the telephone to the National Farmers' Union to understand why we are 'moaning', as you put it, about the serious consequences of farmers not having access to enough workers.
In the interests of accuracy, and in defence of British agriculture, I'd like to correct some of the misnomers in your article, and pose some questions back to you. Where to begin?
1. You suggest a labour shortage might be in Britain's interest? Out of interest, what do you define as 'Britain's interest?' Is it in Britain's interest for more of the food we eat to be grown here? I would say yes, for three reasons.
First, UK food production is the safest, most traceable, audited and regulated in the world. Two words, Red Tractor. That's before we mention its outstanding taste and quality.
You say yourself that there's nothing finer than a ripe English strawberry.
Second, it's nice to think of a labour shortage in simple supply and demand terms. Fewer people being paid more. In reality, those very strawberries, all 170,000 tonnes of them, are currently picked by 28,000 EU nationals who come to the UK for an average of 22 weeks between May and September, live on farm and go home. Without enough workers the food simply can't be produced.
Across the horticulture sector an incredible seasonal workforce of 60,000 mainly EU nationals pick and pack over 9 million tonnes and 300 types of fruit, flower and vegetable. This workforce underpins thousands of permanent jobs for UK and EU nationals across the whole food and drink supply chain. So, yes, losing them is a serious concern for those people whose jobs depend on them.
And third, we only need cast our minds back to last spring to see why a supply chain strategy that relies on imports is an inherently risk-one. Weather events on the continent deprived British consumers of courgettes and lettuces for a matter of weeks - supermarket shelves were empty and prices for the small volumes of salad available soared. Who'd have thought there could be a black market for iceberg lettuce?
2. You state that the UK businesses employ more EU nationals than ever before and that net migration to the UK has fallen. Why would it surprise you then that British businesses and the Chamber of Commerce are concerned about the impact of that?
Your list of concerned institutions might also include the Government.
Several Select Committees have convened since the referendum to look at the issue of labour, all in the public interest. They too think the situation serious. The most recently published Home Affairs Committee Report (12 January 2018) says, "The Government should consider a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme as there is already evidence that access to UK and EEA labour markets is insufficient to meet current demand. The objective of any such scheme would be to meet labour and skills shortages in the sector."
3. You call EU labour 'cheap'. Seasonal workers in horticulture earned £8.25 per hour on average in 2017, above the minimum wage, and with holiday pay, pensions, subsidised accommodation, overtime and bonuses on-top.
Farming, just like the care, catering, hospitality, construction and retail sectors, relies on large numbers of EU migrants for low skilled work. Inflating wages to boost numbers is a short-term strategy, and wages are driven by the market. If wages go up, somebody has to pay.
Depending on where you shop, it might have escaped your attention that retailers are in a race to the bottom on price, and fresh produce features at the top of the loss-leader list. I paid 18p for a kilo of British potatoes at Christmas - where in that equation do you see the headroom for growers to recoup the cost of higher wages?
The Bank of England reports that food prices have already increased 1.4% since the Referendum - that's without the hike in wages yet being transferred to the consumer.
And, while you might be willing and able to pay more for a punnet of British strawberries Juliet, would you stretch to 30-50% more? That's the level of inflation that's been estimated if we lose a critical mass of seasonal labour.
Lastly, and I hate to break it to you, but we operate in a global marketplace. If British growers can't compete on price with the fruit and vegetables grown abroad, retailers will place profit over provenance and none of us will enjoy that fine ripe English strawberry. b>What's more, the worker paid to pick the strawberry grown abroad will also be a migrant (every developed country employs migrant workers to harvest crops), but is unlikely to have received the same pay and benefits they could have in the UK - a country with the most stringent and ethical employment standards in the world.
4. Farmers should invest in machines to replace humans. Well, yes, but let's get real here shall we? Wages account for around 50% of the cost of food production, so for growers - being switched on businessmen and women - investing in smarter ways of doing things is a no-brainer.
Let's stick with the strawberry. The soft-fruit sector is spending millions worldwide trying to develop a robot that will be able to pick a berry with the same level of delicacy as a human hand. If it can be done, it won't be in time for Brexit sadly. It's the same story for asparagus, daffodils, apples… I could go on. Crops don't just appear either.
Even with a machine to pick a fruit, vegetable or flower we will still need people to establish, manage, grade, pack, transport and sell the produce. Estimates are that technology could cut the workforce on some farms by up to 50%, but that it's also more than a decade away, and won't come cheap.
It would have been fair in your 1,000 word piece to give a small nod to the advancements in British farming that have already successfully led to labour efficiencies; such as moving strawberry production off the ground onto tables and finding varieties that produce larger fruits for easier picking.
Let's end on a high. Today, 6 February, is a day that two women with strong voices in their respective fields should use them to positive effect.......
You hit on an important and timely point when you say that investments in technology are still needed in agriculture, but that margins are too tight to justify it.
A new UK Agriculture Bill offers a golden opportunity to design a policy that encourages investment in technology and research and drives productivity. We can reduce reliance on low-skilled labour, without compromising our ability to produce world class produce at a competitive price and deliver consumers the traceable, safe, ethically and environmentally conscious, home-grown food they demand.
We can also design a UK immigration policy which grants the Government more control, but also has the needs of the economy at its heart.
I hope my 1,400 words on the topic (I did try to restrain myself) have added some balance to the debate. I would welcome you onto a British fruit farm to continue a discussion on the pros and cons of EU labour at any time.
One of the biggest growers of berries in the UK is moving part of its business to China because it cannot guarantee it will find enough fruit pickers available to work.
Up to 200 seasonal jobs have gone at Haygrove's farm in Ledbury, Herefordshire, and some of the company's raspberry and blueberry-growing will be relocated to Yunnan province in China because of uncertainty over migrant labour due to Brexit.
Click on HAYGROVE
Below: Angus Davison
Angus Davison, the founder of Haygrove, said: "In the UK we employ 230 full-time and 1,150 seasonal workers, but we are now reducing that to 950 because of Brexit nervousness." The company has a turnover of £101m.
"We are already out of time," he says, explaining that he can't afford to wait for Theresa May to reveal her immigration policy as this year's harvest was planned last year.
Davison has written to Theresa May, pleading with her to take urgent action. "Unless a seasonal workers scheme is put in place, you must expect to see the steep decline of this significant rural employer and source of food," he wrote - "It is appreciated that treating one industry differently to another is difficult; however agriculture, unlike construction and hospitality, can be exported. If enough people are not made available to do the work, the work can be taken to the people."
The prime minster has not replied.
As farmers across the country warned of the risks of planting food that could rot in the fields, Davison said he had to act because of "super-tight" profit margins.
"We are reducing our employment this year by 200 people, 20% of our workforce, in anticipation of problems we can't afford and we are investing in China instead."
He said May's vow to end freedom of movement from March next year would have disastrous consequences for farmers dependent on seasonal EU workers.
If he can't get the migrant workers, he will have to move more of his business overseas, or close down altogether, he warns.
"I would feel very, very sad for the people here, after 30 years of building together. But I would quickly move our activities abroad, with those that wanted to come. We're not stuck here, we live on planet earth."
"If we don't get the migrant workers for 2019, we can run it for a year
Report on UK's reliance on EU workers 'must be published urgently'
Farmers up and down the country, along with the National Farmers Union, have been urging the government to reintroduce a seasonal agriculture workers scheme to keep the flow of pickers coming from eastern Europe.
The agriculture minister, George Eustice, and the recently moved Home Office minister Brandon Lewis replied to Davison's local MP after he made representations. They promised action, but not until the autumn when the Migration Advisory Committee report on all sectors of the economy is published.
"I do not think the new MAC paper is worth the paper it is written on," said Davison, echoing calls elsewhere in business for the report to be brought forward.
Davison said the margins were so tight in the supply chain from farm to fork that he could not afford to "wait and see" on immigration policy.
Catalin Constandis, a Haygrove farm manager, said British workers did not want to pick fruit because it was too physically demanding.
"In my team in the past two years, no English people have worked here. We had some graduates once; they didn't last a day," said Constandis, who has just become a British citizen.
Davison has already started planting blueberries and raspberries in the Yunnan province in China. The Yunnan governor had a "remarkable understanding" of the blueberry crop and, unlike the British government, instilled confidence and positivity in his business, he said.
He said he had implored May to "learn from the Chinese", adding: "I think that it is sad that our prime minister does not seem to understand fundamental food business realities."
Time to finish I think; sorry for the intensity of this week's Journal, but these are very important issues - all the hard work and investment over the last two decades could be lost very quickly if Government continue to 'sit on the fence' with their decision making - do we really want to return to Supermarket shelves dominated by imported fruit?
The English Apple Man