Strawberries, a treat eaten every year at the Wimbledon tennis championships, could cost Britons a lot more if Brexit leaves farms without enough seasonal workers from overseas. And there are signs labour shortages are already emerging.
Strawberry and raspberry prices will jump 35% to 50% if British growers lose access to summer workers, almost all of whom come from other European Union nations, according to a report commissioned by industry group British Summer Fruits. That would cut UK fruit output and mean imports would be needed to make up for the shortfall.
That may be a sooner-than-expected problem. In May, labour providers found it harder to supply fruit and vegetable growers with foreign workers compared with last year, a National Farmers’ Union survey published Thursday showed.
“If access to seasonal workers cannot be ensured, we could see fruit being left unpicked in fields or growers moving their operations to countries with a ready supply of labor,” British Summer Fruits, which represents 97% of all berries supplied to UK supermarkets, said in the report.
Access to labour when the UK leaves the EU is one of the key uncertainties and concerns for the agriculture industry, something the NFU has urged the government to give more clarity over. Soft-fruit growers employ 29,000 seasonal workers, making up about a third of Britain’s total horticultural jobs. UK consumers spend about $1.5 billion on berries every year, half of which are homegrown.
Any production losses would spur bigger imports from nations such as the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland and the US, according to British Summer Fruits Chairman Laurence Olins.
“Until those countries gear up to supply our needs, we will pay up to 50% more for our berries as it will take years before growers in other countries can respond to our demands,” Olins said. “Buying from other countries will also have an impact on our balance of payments situation as we are buying on a devalued currency, we don’t have a strong pound here.”
A weaker pound may also discourage seasonal workers. The currency’s drop since last year’s referendum has effectively cut workers’ pay by about 12%, British Summer Fruits said.
In May, there was a 17% shortfall in the number of workers labor providers were able to supply farms, compared with a 3.8% deficit a year earlier, according to the NFU survey, which represents 30% of the total seasonal labour supply to the horticulture sector. The proportion of those returning from previous seasons to farm jobs dropped to record low.
To ease pressure on the fruit industry, British Summer Fruits is proposing a permit program allowing workers to enter the UK on fixed-term contracts and help growers to fill jobs that many British workers shun. A similar program was in place for about 65 years until 2013.
“Currently, we are 100% self-sufficient for all our fruit needs during the summer and we don’t need to import any fruit during that time,” Olins said by phone. “That could change dramatically if we don’t get these permits.”