Stephen Jardine: Hard Brexit could squash our soft fruit industry

The quality of raspberries and strawberries grown in Scotland adds to the strength of our food and drink industry.
The quality of raspberries and strawberries grown in Scotland adds to the strength of our food and drink industry.
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If the workforce from the rest of the EU is restricted and locals cannot be recruited to replace them, it will mean farmers will not grow what they can’t pick, finds Stephen Jardine

If you like strawberries and raspberries, it doesn’t get better than right now. This month is peak season with Scottish soft fruit at it’s very best. Gone are the tasteless specimens flown in from far away to see us through the winter. Instead, ripe delicious berries from the fields of Angus, Tayside and Perthshire take their place. Well enjoy them while you can.

This week a report for the summer fruits trade organisation predicted the cost of strawberries and raspberries could soar by 50 per cent if Brexit makes it harder for growers to recruit overseas pickers. At present 95 per cent of the 30,000 workforce comes from other EU nations, mostly Poland and Romania.

In some parts of Scotland soft fruit picking is big business and across the UK it is worth £1.2 billion. The industry has been expanding but that is now in doubt. On top of that we are all being told to eat more fruit and support local producers but how can we do that if the industry suffers?

The easy answer would be to recruit local workers to take the place of the pickers from abroad, but soft fruit companies report huge difficulties in attracting indigenous staff with one firm telling the BBC they’d only had one application from a local worker in five years.

The reasons behind that are complex. Back in July 2008 a report for the British Government’s Migration Advisory Committee warned of the dangers of becoming over-reliant on foreign agricultural workers. That advice now seems even more relevant.

The committee identified a range of reasons why incomers had replaced British workers in the fields ranging from the population drift from rural to urban areas to the growth of alternative service jobs in warm offices and a downwards shift in the status of farm work in society. The longer growing and picking season has also made it harder to recruit and retain students.

The Government says it is aware of the concerns surrounding farm labour and will factor that into Brexit negotiations but that could be too little too late. Uncertainty sparked by Brexit and the weakness of the pound against the Euro is already causing problems with one in five growers say they have fewer pickers than they need this summer as foreign workers opt for countries where their earnings go further.

When it comes to food and drink, Brexit poses a complex web of difficulties and opportunities. Some sectors believe it could unlock their potential but others are staring into the abyss. At last month’s Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards Bruce Farms was crowned business of the year. Now its 750 tonnes of Scottish soft production is on a Brexit precipice.

“This autumn we need to start recruiting for next year. If there is no certainty about labour movement or even a permit screen to let workers into the country, everything will have to change. We can’t plant what we can’t pick so by next autumn we will have to take some big decisions and that could involve ending soft fruit production if the uncertainty continues. It is that urgent,” owner Geoff Bruce told me.

Decisions like that would be disasterous for Scotland’s food and drink sector and it’s worldwide reputation for quality produce. Just think about it. We could end up in a situation where the summer shelves are stacked with foreign strawberries and raspberries shipped to Scotland because we simply don’t have the workers to pick what is hanging from the fruit trees in our own fields.

So the clock is ticking and the problem is here and now. The solution lies in the hands of the Government. The rest of us can only savour those delicious Scottish strawberries and raspberries for as long as we can.