Published: 17:43, 02 July 2018
| Updated: 13:56, 04 July 2018
A shortage of seasonal workers to help Kent’s fruit farmers means that produce could end up rotting in fields rather than in punnetts in shops, the government has been warned.
Picking fruit is heavily reliant on seasonal labour from the EU but Brexit has been blamed for a recruitment crisis which has seen a decline in the numbers willing to come to the UK because of concerns about the freedom of movement of labour.
The county accounts for a significant part of the country’s fruit production.
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Kevin Atwood, of Kent County Agricultural Society, said the government needed to act now to head off the problem.
“We are heading into a problem now and it is no good the government saying they are going to come up with a solution as we head towards Brexit - because it is a function of Brexit and the furore around it that it is developing now.”
“There is a crisis emerging - probably not yet fully developed - and we have been trying for some time to alert the government that we have had problems, particularly with seasonal fruit pickers and it is getting worse.”
Almost half of English top fruit - such as apples and pears - is grown in Kent, along with 40% of English soft fruit, such as strawberries and raspberries.
Mr Atwood said the improving economy of other EU member states was exacerbating the problem.
“Europe’s economies are doing well; pickers that used to come are staying at home and are not travelling across Europe so there has been a diminution of labour.”
“Often when we are recruiting, the numbers look OK but then they don’t turn up or if they do, they disappear into the wider economy. So, it is not a simple issue.”
Tim Chambers, a strawberry producer from Maidstone, said they were down “10 or 15%” on seasonal workers from abroad.
“I suspect we are, throughout this summer, going to be walking away from crops. It is an issue that has been coming over the hill for two or three years and the irony is that other EU countries who draw labour from other countries have already solved it by going to countries outside Europe.
"We will find it increasingly difficult to recruit new workers to come in.”
A government spokesperson said: “Defra and the Home Office are working closely to ensure the labour needs of the agriculture sector are met once we leave the EU.
“We have been clear that up until December 2020, employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors will be free to recruit EU citizens to fill vacancies and those arriving to work will be able to stay in the UK afterwards.
"We are determined to get the best deal for the UK in our EU negotiations, not least for our world-leading food and farming industry which is a key part of our economic success.”
More by this authorPaul Francis