Farming: Seasonal workers scheme needed in horticulture sector

Immediate measures are required to address labour shortages in the horticulture sector if the industry is to afford the long term investment required to develop robotics and automation technologies.

Admitting that technology didn’t offer an immediate silver bullet silver bullet solution to farm labour problems, an independent report into automation in the horticulture sector published yesterday recommended that the UK Government should introduce a long-term Seasonal Workers Scheme this year. This, it claimed would help stabilise workforce pressures in the sector and allow growers to better evaluate their labour needs over time and facilitate long-term capital investments in automation technology.

The review – which was conducted for DEFRA by sector expert, Professor Simon Pearson - highlighted that the diversity of the sector posed a challenge to wide-scale agri-robotic adoption.

“We recognise that robotic systems are expensive to develop and tend to be designed to replicate a limited range of human tasks,” said Professor Pearson. “On this basis, it is likely that robotic development will focus on the larger crops or where the cost of automation is relatively low, and many tasks and crop groups may never be automated,” he conceded.

However said he hoped the report would support the development of a host of novel initiatives to underpin the resilience of UK horticulture, while fostering a new high-tech UK industry in advanced robotics for the agri-food sector.

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“It is encouraging to see the development of automation and agri-technology and sustainable food production being recognised nationally as key drivers within the industry going forward,” he said.

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