Good harvest masks shortage of farm workers - Andrew Arbuckle

In recent months, an impression has emerged that farming is going through good times. A bit like a swan gliding effortlessly across the water. Superficially, all seems to be serene and calm.

Contributing to that image the weather this year has largely been benign and that makes a big difference in the farming world. This harvest, the combines have roared into fields and within a few hours roared out again with the job done. Stock have thrived under a hot, dry summer with very little guddling about in badly poached fields.

Added further to the view that farming is doing well, commodity prices are generally much higher than expected, and if cash flows have had to be revisited, it has generally been to revise them upward so like the aforementioned swan floating along the river, it all looks set fair for farming.

Hold that a moment while we have a little peek under the surface and see what is really happening. In fact, there is no need to look very far as there are already reports of crops being lost and livestock being destroyed through a shortage of workers.

These are the early signs of a chronic shortage of farm workers; a shortage which spills over into processing factories and haulage firms servicing the farming industry. While deficiencies in some sectors of the work force have already been well documented, not so many have recorded we now have a dearth of skilled livestock workers, tractor drivers and almost everyone else connected with farming.

This scarcity may not have emerged as much as it might have if we had just come through a normal season with weather holdups and machinery stressed to breaking point. Farm work is always easier if you are not battling the elements. If you don’t believe that try cutting vegetables with the rain dripping down your neck thence into your wellies or working in oilskins with soggy livestock.

The shortfall in unskilled workers may appear to be quickly solvable by the UK Government setting up a temporary scheme for migrant workers to fill the gap. Unfortunately, such was our hurried departure from Europe that nobody cottoned onto the fact that temporary workers would not be entitled to EU benefits on their return home to mainland Europe. Over the past two decades, we have become overly reliant on workers coming over from Europe and, having told them they are no longer welcome here, we now have to deal with the consequences

An immediate consequence of this is there will be fewer fields of vegetables grown, pigs produced along with cutbacks in all other activities requiring lots of labour.

There have been labour shortages in agriculture before but nothing that has been so widespread and far reaching. Back in the post war years, Irishmen and Displaced Persons came over from Europe to help bring the ‘harvest home.’

Growers of soft fruit in the 1970s will remember all sorts of desperate ploys created to get more pickers onto their fields. Bus loads of workers could be easily diverted with the bribe of a ten bob note to the driver and by the time the expectant farmer realised he had no picking squad that day it was too late. His squad were busy picking fruit in his neighbour’s field

Going back to the Second World War years with many of the regular farm staff off to the battlefront, prisoners of war were used to fill the labour gaps. It was said then that the choice was between Germans who were hard working but had a difficult attitude, or Italians who were easy going but lazy.

What can be done to mitigate the shortages?

There is no point in politicians calling for the unemployed to become vegetable harvesters although that might have more credibility if they themselves took off their shiny suits and put in a shift or two just to see what it entailed.

Some of the elected representatives may prefer working in an abattoir, again just to give their proclamations substance when next they stand up in the Chamber.

Superficially farming will continue to look well but the frantic paddling out of sight to produce food under present circumstances will be too much for some. A reduction in home production may not immediately be noticed on shop shelves but it will in time.

And we will all be poorer. This Brexit thing is really just a piece of cake.


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