James Porter: Brexit's a bitter harvest for soft fruit

Many will mock a soft fruit grower from the balmy Angus coast when he writes about adversity '“ and normally I wouldn't blame them.

Most foreign fruit pickers dont stay in the UK. Picture: Dan Phillips
Most foreign fruit pickers dont stay in the UK. Picture: Dan Phillips

In the past decade, soft fruit sales have grown 150 per cent, while many other sectors of agriculture have struggled. I am very conscious of the problems faced elsewhere, partly because I am also a mixed farmer growing cereals and potatoes.

Don’t get me wrong, adversity isn’t always a bad thing. As well as being a positive driver for increased efficiency and yield, it can control oversupply.

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But overproduction, leading to lower prices, is hitting farm incomes hard across all sectors (the Scottish Government’s Farm Business Survey shows a shocking 48 per cent drop in the average income in one year) and there is undoubtedly going to be much less financial support from all UK and Scottish governments after 2022, whatever their colour.

The version of adversity now facing horticulture is downright ugly because it is so avoidable and unnecessary – and it threatens one of the few sectors of agriculture that is currently thriving.

Here is a quick summary:

◆ Scotland produces a third of the UK’s soft fruit.

◆ Scottish soft fruit and veg combined have sales in excess of £230m annually, which is more than both sheep and potatoes.

◆ Scottish horticulture employs around 15,000 seasonal workers to harvest and pack the produce.

But here’s the rub. The phenomenal growth in the soft fruit sector in particular over the past decade has been fundamentally driven by free access to migrant workers from the EU. Without them we would not have a business.

Almost everything in the fresh section of your local supermarket (as well as much of the meat aisle) has been harvested, picked or packed by Eastern Europeans.

On our farm we employ up to 250 and 50 per cent are women. They often leave children behind with grandparents to come and work here. Most return home at the end of the season, although around 5 per cent are full-time.

They pay tax and NI, and although most will claim back the tax when they return home, the NI is not repaid. On average, the net NI contribution is £2,000, including employer’s NI.

I was dismayed to hear Ian Duncan Smith referring to them as low-skilled and low-value on Newsnight the other week. You try picking fruit or cutting broccoli all day long IDS. And just to be clear, our friends from abroad are not undercutting local workers – they are paid in excess of the National Living Wage because this is gold plated by the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board (SAWB). The top workers consistently earn £10 or more per hour and none are paid less than £7.50.

The consequences for the industry of not having free movement of labour would be devastating, reducing UK production, UK taxation income, and UK fruit consumption due to reduced availability and increased prices. The increased price would suck in more imports, resulting in even higher prices, and bigger food mileage.

In the words of parliament’s own Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee committee in its report “Feeding the nation”: “The current problem is in danger of becoming a crisis if urgent measures are not taken to fill the gaps in labour supply.”

The Scottish Government has been looking at the issue with a paper ‘Options for differentiating the UK’s immigration system’, by Dr Eve Hepburn.

I would urge the UK government to look seriously at these if it is not willing to keep free movement for EU nationals across the whole of the UK.

I know of at least two agencies this year that are struggling to source enough temporary workers to fulfil agreements. The Conservatives have promised to return to a SAW workers’ scheme, but this is the bare minimum we need. Ideally we would have free movement of labour, or it won’t be so much a case of whether or not we will allow them to come here, but whether they will want to come at all.

That would be a great pity. In the year I left school, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and I remember there was a great sense of relief and joy. Some 28 harvests later, it feels like a wall is going back up again.

So, solidarity, brothers and sisters – the horticulture sector is about to be launched right into the Brexit slurry pit with everyone else, thanks to some naïve and ignorant misconceptions about migrant workers.

James Porter, Angus Soft Fruits