Scottish farmers brace for worker shortage as food wastage fears mount

Scottish farmers are bracing themselves for a difficult summer due to a shortage of trained seasonal workers able to harvest fruit and vegetables.

Fears have been raised that food crops could end up going to waste if they cannot be picked in time.

Issues are already facing growers south of the Border, where harvest dates are earlier, with unpicked produce such as tomatoes and lettuces being ploughed back into fields.

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Fife farmer Iain Brown, who is chair of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland’s horticulture working group, says Scottish producers are deeply concerned about the situation.

Scottish farmers are concerned about a shortfall in skilled workers. Picture: Justin Tallis-WPA Pool/Getty ImagesScottish farmers are concerned about a shortfall in skilled workers. Picture: Justin Tallis-WPA Pool/Getty Images
Scottish farmers are concerned about a shortfall in skilled workers. Picture: Justin Tallis-WPA Pool/Getty Images

He grows strawberries and broccoli at Easter Grangemuir in Pittenweem, where between 100 and 150 seasonal workers are usually on site at this time of year.

The team is already around 30 people down, he says, with the shortage exacerbated by a lack of previous experience among the workers and a later arrival on farms.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has confounded the problem, with Ukrainian pickers who had filled shortfalls caused by Brexit no longer able to take jobs abroad.

Teams are now being sourced from further afield, including Kurdistan, Thailand and western Asia.“Like other growers we’re short of labour on farms,” Mr Brown said.

“We are currently having to prioritise harvesting over regular husbandry tasks, which could also create problems further down the line.

“Crops are ready to be picked right now, but the workers we have managed to get have arrived later this year and don’t have previous experience, so require two or three weeks of training.

“This comes on top of a lack of numbers and the unfortunate loss of returnees from Ukraine.

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“The Scottish season runs later than elsewhere in the UK, so we’re not aware of any food being wasted as yet, but we’re very concerned – it’s a real threat.

“If we fall behind in picking crops, yield will be down and waste will increase.”

Estimates suggest there is as much as a 15 per cent shortfall of workers this year.

On some farms there are workers of 20 different nationalities, provided by agencies.

The UK Government’s new Food Strategy has said an additional 10,000 visas for seasonal workers will be made available – 8,000 for horticulture and 2,000 for poultry – taking the total number available to 40,000.

NFU Scotland is blaming Westminster for the problems facing agricultural businesses.

Crops policy manager David Michie said: “The UK Government’s hostile migration policy has undermined Scottish horticulture.“Growers are in survival mode.”

He said the 8,000 extra visas are far from enough to turn the sector around.

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Mr Michie added: “NFU Scotland wants the Home Office to engage and actually listen to industry and make the SW visa scheme bigger and better, to truly support British fruit and vegetable production.”

Minette Batters, head of the National Farmers’ Union, said there was an “absolute crisis” in the UK agriculture industry, with tonnes of wasted food being ploughed back into land on farms further south.

She said the labour shortage was an issue across the whole supply chain and was not just related to a lack of seasonal workers post-Brexit.



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