Lesley Riddoch: Brexit puts our fruit farmers in a jam

Sharp fall in number of east European berry pickers since EU vote threatens bumper crop, writes Lesley Riddoch

Soft fruit workers plant strawberries at a Tayside farm  but now some of the harvest has had to be left to rot. Picture: TSPL
Soft fruit workers plant strawberries at a Tayside farm  but now some of the harvest has had to be left to rot. Picture: TSPL

Why are the problems facing Scotland’s soft fruit industry causing national unease? Last week MPs toured strawberry and raspberry farms in Perthshire and members of Common Weal and local Yes groups pondered online whether summer holidays should be ditched to save this year’s crop. Would such selfless gestures save the day? It’s uncertain.

The problems facing Scotland’s soft fruit growers are big, urgent and complex – they are also deeply symbolic. As an unwilling Scotland is forced to contemplate the food shortages that will accompany a hard Brexit, here we are watching perfectly good food being left to rot. That’s depressing at the best of times – symbolic of Scotland’s helplessness as we face an unwanted and damaging Brexit in less than nine months.

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And deeply ironic too. Right now, hot weather has produced a bumper and slightly early soft fruit harvest, but Brexit has produced a collapse in the number of east European pickers willing to come to Scotland. A study carried out for the Scottish Government estimated 9,000 seasonal agricultural workers were employed here in 2017 – most on fruit farms. This was 20 per cent fewer than the industry needed, but there was worse to come. The survey found that 60 per cent of these workers were uncertain about returning to Scotland this year.

Since then opinion among east Europeans has hardened. Rumours of a hostile environment in England have created uncertainty about conditions in Scotland too and this has combined with a tangible fall in the value of sterling against the currencies of neighbouring countries, which are easier to reach. Meanwhile improving east European economies can offer better-paid professional employment to their graduates than the manual labour that used to take them here. Apparently, many Polish fruit farms now employ Indian migrants to harvest crops. Times are changing.

The result in Scotland has been pretty tragic. About 20 tonnes of strawbs and rasps were left to rot last week alone in Perthshire – Scotland’s soft fruit heartland. It’s an emotional issue – for politicians, would-be consumers and stressed-out growers.

After all, Scots still generally have to be forced to eat vegetables. But no one needs encouragement to scoff strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and brambles by the punnet. Soft fruit and honey must be the only sweet things in Scotland that are also healthy foods. So the idea of abandoning truckloads of ripe berries is disturbing.

So folk are asking why Scots aren’t capable of picking our own berries, as past generations used to do around Tayside and Angus, where travellers and Dundonians worked in the berry fields of Blairgowrie to create extra income, outdoor-oriented summertime communities and rich musical and storytelling traditions.

Can we revive those traditions in time? Probably not.

First, there’s the scale and urgency of the task. William Houstoun of Angus Growers estimates 4,000 berry pickers are needed right now but there are only 1,400 
unemployed and able-bodied folk in the area.

Second, there’s a stack of deterrents in the benefits system. Growers report that unemployed Scots consider full-time picking jobs until they figure out that working more than 16 hours a week means losing benefits and winding up worse off. Universal credit adds to the problem. According to Citizens Advice Scotland, universal credit claimants must be available to look for work unless they are working more than 35 hours a week at the national minimum wage, in which case their universal credit claim will probably be closed. A neat wee Catch-22. And of course, anyone restarting a universal credit claim must endure a month at least without any cash to live on.

Mr Houstoun says: “Many of our east European pickers came for three or four months over a period of four years to finance particular projects like going to university or building a house.” Sadly, our benefits system militates against Scots having such peripatetic and seasonal employment patterns.

A third problem is the skilled and specialist nature of the job. Picking and packing soft fruit without bruising them is a delicate task – made more so by the current spell of hot weather, which means picking starts at 4:30am to stop berries going mushy by the time they reach supermarket shelves. Supermarket deals provide a steady demand but mean low prices and high standards.

Legislation to stop modern slavery and human trafficking can leave farmers worried about taking teams of workers to other farms lest they appear to be acting as gangmasters.

Wage levels are a bone of contention. Berry pickers are paid on a piecework basis – if they don’t pick enough to earn Scottish Agricultural Wages Board rates the farmer has to make up the difference – so unskilled workers generally leave after a few days. Good pickers earn more than £10 an hour when the conditions are right. But growers insist this represents a fourfold increase in pay since the mid-1990s despite berry prices remaining static.

Finally, school leavers want summer jobs to boost their CVs. They want Duke of Edinburgh awards or internships to help them stand out in the university application process. There’s a perception that manual work, including berry-picking, doesn’t demonstrate ambition or professional intent. And it’s illegal to employ youngsters below the age of 16.

So what does the future hold?

The next problem starts in autumn when crops ripen. East European berry pickers used to stay on for the apple and vegetable harvests but that may not happen this year. Ploughing in vegetables would be more maddening for farmers because harvesting costs are relatively low compared with the big cost of harvesting berries.

So some very tough decisions must soon be taken. The biggest worry for fruit farmers is a no-deal Brexit, which could mean no direct flights to Britain after March 2019, no incoming pickers and therefore no point planting soft fruit in Scotland. Imported Spanish strawberries could become the norm and Scotland’s traditional berry fields could switch to crops which can be mechanically harvested.

This sour prospect might perhaps be averted if the UK government yields to industry demands and replaces the scrapped Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, extending it to cover all European citizens. The other options are more difficult.

Britain could quit the path to Brexit or Scotland could quit a Brexiting UK.

If there is an easier solution, I’m sure Scotland’s soft fruit farmers are waiting to hear it.