The challenges of fruit growers today (apart from making a profit) are obtaining and maintaining a labour force and balancing this vital element with a responsibility for the environment.
This week's Journal contains a lot of detail - primarily due to the desire to make all my readers fully aware of the lengths our grower take to ensure the production of 'healthy quality fruit' grown in an 'environmentally safe and sustainable way'
At this moment in time, we are well into the supply of summer fruits and on the point of apple and pear harvest.
Below: Marion Regan
At the recent Fruit Focus event held annually at NIAB EMR research in East Malling in Kent, Marion Regan - Managing Director of Hugh Lowe Farms presented her plan for meeting those challenges.
Productivity v Resilience
The soft fruit productivity puzzle
Trade offs or synergies?
Our route to market, and PO
- Optimising returns on > - Capital - Labour - Carbon (CO2e - Other natural capital
The English Apple Man Comments
The challenge's facing our fruit growers is demonstrated perfectly by Marion's Graph showing the upward costs of labour wiping out the financial returns. The prospect of this reversing is unimaginable with Supermarkets reluctance to raise retail prices or reduce their profit margins, and with no sign of a slow down in costs, 'something has to give'
Our route to market, and PO
- Marketing co-operative - Producer Organisation - 100% grower-owned - 50+ members - Nationwide coverage
Hugh Lowe Farms allied to BERRY GARDENS
- 100% substrate production in sustainable coir - Under protection: glass & polytunnels - Precision irrigation
- Precision application of nutrients - Microclimate management to optimise growing environment- Optimal pollination conditions
- Low density plantings to optimise air circulation, light interception and hygienic harvesting.
- Own propagation facilities to ensure healthy pest- and disease free plants
- Range of plant types to manipulate cropping period
- Depresses productivity - Grade outs - Alternative uses - Crop profiles
Breeding for productivity
- Genetic improvements - Select varieties suitable for the task - Evaluate trade off
- Extensive trials for over 40 years: own HLF trial sites - Driscolls programme (BG has exclusivity):
- Zara (WR1) - Elizabeth (WR1) - Katrina - Beatrice - Amesti
- Malling programme (Hugh Lowe Farms are co-funders):
- Centenary - Vitality - Allure - Ace
- Ania - Murano - Favori
- Trial selections - assessed through chain.
- Driscolls breeding programme - exclusive through Berry Gardens.
- Maravilla - Sofi - Reyna
- Trial selections
- Malling programme - we (HLF) are co-funder
- Bella - Charm
- Trial selections
- Plant Sciences programme
- Majestic - Nobility - Ovation
- JHI (Scotland) programme
- Skye - Glen Carron.
People - Hugh Lowe Farms employ
60 permanent employees - 750 seasonal team members
- EU Settled /Pre-settled Status - SWP (Seasonal Workers Pilot Scheme): early adopters
- UK residents - 90% accommodated on the farm - Significant investment in more spacious accommodation 2019-20
- Member of SEDEX - Audited to ETI standards by SMETA - Last Audit 100%
- Stronger Together training - FPC Guidance adhered to - Health & Safety plan independently monitored
- Apprenticeships - Graduate training scheme
Provide crops that are "a joy to pick"
- Training - Field access & lay out - Quality & abundance - Fruit presentation
- Variety - Plant type - Density - Canopy management - Crop supports
- Proactive crop management
- Welfare facilities - Supervision, respect , team - Earning opportunities : Piece work
Automate the business?
- Saga robotic application of UVC light for mildew control
- Mechanised distribution of biopesticides
- Mechanised leaf removal (vineyard benefits)
- Mechanised crop establishment & removal
Click on SAGA Robotics
The English Apple Man Comments:
Obtaining optimum labour for harvesting and general growing requirements is not only a problem for British producers, but now a global issue. However, the problem for British growers has been exacerbated by Brexit and particularly our Governments lack of support for recruitment procedures. The COVID 19 pandemic has added difficulties, but even without the pandemic, our growers would still be in a very difficult recruitment situation.
Prior to Brexit the freedom of movement within the EU and a long established recruitment scheme: e.g. SAWS the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme allowed recruitment agencies to provide growers across the UK with sufficient labour.
In the last decade, many of the harvest workers came from Romania & Bulgaria, but when those two countries became members of the EU our Government decided to 'scrap' SAWS. GB's 'final exit' from the EU recategorized the Romanian & Bulgarian workers from free to come here into a 'hard to access' labour pool.
Our Government was persuaded to reinstate the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) as The SWP scheme was introduced in 2019 as a test pilot, with an initial quota of 3,000 and originally run by two operators, the Home Office decided to extend the scheme into 2021, increasing the number of work permits to 30,000 and increasing the number of scheme Operators to four. Set against an annual recruitment for all horticultural growers of 80,000 that was totally inadequate.
After extreme lobbying from the industry, led by NFU's Ali Capper and marketing groups, the DEFRA (Government) increased the annual licence quota to 30,000. The licenses were allocated to 4 recruitment agencies, (initially 3) and one of those is AG Recruitment run by husband and wife team; Doug & Estera Amez. Trading as AG Recruitment.
Courtesy of SOUTH EAST FARMER MAGAZINE and an article by Malcolm Triggs - The English Apple Man includes some of the key events faced by recruiters.
Below: Doug & Estera Amez
Growers across the South East had the workforce they needed to harvest this year's crops after a recruitment expert pulled out all the stops to find a reliable source of overseas labour.
It was a close-run thing in a high-pressured scenario, helped only by the cold weather that delayed the growing season. Doug and Estera Amesz, founders of A G Recruitment, said they felt there was "a gun at our heads" as they fought to avert a potential crisis caused by late announcements and delayed decisions regarding the seasonal workers pilot scheme.
With workers from Bulgaria and Romania less keen to travel to the UK and pre-settled and settled status workers increasingly unwilling to pick vegetables and fruits on British farms, Doug spent several months in Ukraine lining up a reliable source of workers.
AG Recruitment, one of just four agencies trusted by the Home Office to bring seasonal workers into the country this year, has developed a strong reputation for the quality of its picking teams and has helped many growers avert a potential crisis this year.
Doug's decision to switch his sights to Ukraine meant he had to set up four new offices and recruit and train 15 new people to staff those offices. "In effect I had to set up what was essentially a new business," he recalled.
Having done so, the news for the UK's growers is good. "The Ukrainian workforce we are now bringing over is keen, skilled and as good as any we have recruited in recent years," he told South East Farmer.
A G Recruitment has managed to cope with the demand for workers so far this year but is warning that the Government really needs to move quicker ahead of 2022. "We need to know if there is going to be a scheme - and we certainly need one - and how many people we are going to be able to recruit," Doug said.
"We really can't be left waiting until December again as that simply doesn't allow enough time to find the right people, organise visas and transport and get them on to the farms here in the UK. We were saved this year by the coldest spring in 25 years, which delayed the growing season considerably, but we really need an earlier start next year."
Looking ahead, Doug is already lobbying to make sure that the recruitment of next year's seasonal workforce is less rushed and has stressed that the Government must "get its act together" more quickly this time. The business is also looking to set up another operation in Russia as it broadens its recruitment options.
With the numbers of pre-settled and settled status workers prepared to pick fruit and vegetables in the UK dropping sharply and the domestic workforce showing no sign of being willing or able to pick up the slack, Doug said the Home Office needed to allow at least 60,000 seasonal workers into the country next year.
For the full article by Malcolm Triggs, click on South East Farmer - Recruitment Article
Lastly (for this week) apple growers facing the problem of harvest labour are turning to technology and this video of the 2020 harvest at Adrian Scripps Parsonage Farm using the REVO PIUMA 4WD Apples Harvester which reduced number of pickers to 42 compared to 65-70 in 2019. Plus a plethora of reduced associated costs!
That's all for this week, next week as harvesting of mainstream apple varieties approaches, we take a look at fruit maturity.
The English Apple Man