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Coronavirus Kent: Fears for farming firms as workforce is hit by Covid-19 outbreak

Producers of summer fruits are warning the coronavirus crisis could prevent produce getting from farms to the shops this picking season.

The fruit industry in Kent and further afield relies heavily on the availability of seasonal, often migrant labour to bring in the soft fruit harvest in the spring and early summer, but with borders closing across the continent there could be difficulty in sourcing the workers needed.

There are fears coronavirus will hit the soft fruit season. Picture: Andy Payton
There are fears coronavirus will hit the soft fruit season. Picture: Andy Payton

Effects of the coronavirus outbreak are already being felt by the agricultural sector in the county, with one Maidstone-based fruit packing centre issuing an appeal for temporary staff to help it meet demand as more workers are forced to self-isolate.

Now the chairman of trade body British Summer Fruits, Nick Marston, has issued a broader appeal for British workers to come forward and fill gaps in the labour force ahead of the picking season.

He said: “We are now very concerned about securing enough workers to help harvest our vital crops and get fresh fruit and vegetables to the public.

“To help, in the next few days the berry industry will be mounting a large-scale recruitment campaign to encourage people who are in the UK and looking for work because of the current economic impact of the coronavirus to come and work on our farms.”

Stephen Taylor, managing director of Winterwood Farms, a fruit business based in East Sutton but with farms around the world, told us that the industry faced an unprecedented challenge as the Covid-19 virus continued to spread.

"In May there is going to be a massive problem, bigger than we have got now."

He said some staff at the firm’s packing plant - usually staffed by around 250 people - were self-isolating due to high temperatures discovered by checks carried out at work, and that the lack of seasonal workers coming from overseas could severely impact on his business and others across Kent.

"The big problem is the uncertainty of it," Mr Taylor said. "We have got five people self-isolating. That's not many, but we are expecting that to go up over the coming weeks.

"It's incredible how much detail and time we have to spend in the small details, for example all delivery drivers usually have pads they want you to sign, but we have turned around and said all drivers must just drop off and we don't sign. But when you multiply that for all things we have to do it is taking hours of management time to write new protocols for a situation that changes every couple of days.

"The biggest thing the government could do is increase sick pay. If they cut the difference to what people are earning it will be easier for people to self-isolate."

Currently the challenge centres around keeping staff levels high enough to pack the produce which needs to be shipped to meet supermarket demand. But soon the supply of fruit itself could be cut off if free movement of labour becomes impossible due to travel restrictions.

Winterwood Farms in East Sutton, Maidstone, is one of the firms affected by the coronavirus crisis
Winterwood Farms in East Sutton, Maidstone, is one of the firms affected by the coronavirus crisis

Mr Taylor said: "We have got 60 pickers who are coming from Europe and should be arriving in six weeks' time. At the moment the borders are shut, so the biggest worry is they are not going to be able to get here.

"While some people might want to work in the packhouse, I doubt this country is going to have much appetite for going in the fields and picking fruit. There are other growers locally who have 1,000 or more pickers and they have yet to arrive.

"Farming is facing a massive crisis. We have not seen it yet because people are not picking yet, but in May there is going to be a massive problem, bigger than we have got now."

British Summer Fruits is calling on the government to classify food supply-chain staff as key workers in a bid to avert the feared crunch in the coming months.

Mr Marston said: "This would mean that our supply chain, including harvest and packhouse staff on our farms, would be protected. Without these critical workers we will not be able to get our fresh fruit and vegetables from the farm to the shops.

"We also need the government to give us clarity on whether workers we have already recruited from overseas can travel to the UK to work. For example, workers hired to pick our fruit from Romania need to be able to travel to the UK. We need to know whether they are going to be able to travel to help us pick our fruit."

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