Published: 20:54, 05 October 2021
| Updated: 21:10, 05 October 2021
A work visa scheme should be extended to address an emerging jobs crisis in Kent's farming industry, say local groups.
National Farmers' Union South East (NFU SE) and Kent fruit growers have jointly called on the UK government for a major recruitment drive within the industry to alleviate employment pressures faced by the sector.
NFU SE says some farmers in the south east of England are facing "15% to 30% labour shortages" for harvesting vegetables and fruit, such as apples and pears.
It comes as a result of workers leaving the industry due to the pandemic and post-Brexit immigration rules, making it more difficult to hire from Europe.
A NFU spokesman said: "The urgent need for the UK government to introduce a Covid recovery visa scheme, to alleviate labour shortages on fresh produce farms, has been emphasised in meetings with MPs in recent weeks."
Almost half of the nation's soft fruit is grown in the south east, much in Kent, with free-draining soils, rolling hills and mild climate.
Under this, around 13,500 people are employed in Kent's farming industry, with farmers and growers looking after 62% of the county's total land area.
'We need help not only till Christmas, but for many years to come...'
The Garden of England is home to more than 300,000 sheep, while Kent's large cow stock produces 7.9million litres of milk every year.
The county's farming sector has helped to to generate £281 million annually from all the livestock and crops produced across all 13 districts, including Medway.
Boris Johnson's Conservative government last week announced a range of measures to ease shortages following lobbying from farming organisations.
This includes granting 5,500 temporary visas for poultry workers in the UK for up to three months in the lead up to Christmas Day on December 25.
However, more support has been requested from local farming businesses who still face staff shortages, which could impact on food supply.
Medway fruit growers AC Goatham and Son, who grow one-third of all apples and pears in the UK, said help is needed to ensure the survival of the industry.
An AC Goatham and Son spokesman said: "We fully support the NFU’s calls for not only a Covid recovery scheme, but a fully planned and extended scheme to ensure the future of UK horticulture.
"We need help not only till Christmas, but for many years to come."
They say that pay "is not the issue" as the average hourly wages for its staff are beyond the national living wage of £8.91 for people aged 23 and over.
Calling for more recruitment in the county, a spokesman for AC Goatham and Son said: "There is a lack of local people wanting to work in horticulture, this needs to change from school age up, but will take years to overcome.”