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Kent may have a less depleted fruit picking workforce than other areas, says the NFU

People are raring to go fruit picking in Kent farms but are finding their applications get no response as farmers tackle the uncertainty of lockdown.

A farmer's union suggests the South East has a less depleted workforce than other areas and the applications have far exceeded the vacancies.

Clock House Farm has seen 550 more British applications for fruit picking this year - from their usual 50 applications
Clock House Farm has seen 550 more British applications for fruit picking this year - from their usual 50 applications

Simon Tomlinson from Sevenoaks applied for around 20 fruit picking jobs. He said: "I thought they would easily want someone fit and healthy with a bright and energetic attitude. I got three rejection letters and the rest I never heard back from."

Karen Ker, from Maidstone has observed a similar problem. She said: "I know a lot of teenagers who have applied for these jobs and are free until September with their own transportation and all were turned down. A few who were turned down due to distance have been ringing the farms telling them they have transportation and today were offered jobs."

Our reporter Rebecca Tuffin found her search for a berry picking job to be fruitless. She wondered whether it was her lack of experience in picking which led to no replies from the 11 jobs she applied for - or perhaps the positions had already been filled.

Jane Peckham, recruiter for Clock House Farm in Coxheath, said: "We've had 6,000 applications from British people this year. Last year, we had 50. We are very grateful for people stepping up and we have been trying to reply to them all."

However, this does not mean the 700 picking positions at the farm have been filled yet - who gets the jobs will be decided at a later date.

The director of Winterwood Farm says uncertainty is making hiring workers a lot harder
The director of Winterwood Farm says uncertainty is making hiring workers a lot harder

When questioned whether some farmers might favour migrant workers due to previous experience, the Clock House Farm recruiter said: "People from Eastern Europe have got the skills and ability because they come back year on year."

Many of those finding themselves out of work are looking to fruit picking during lockdown. An NFU South East spokeswoman said: "We understand that a lot of jobseekers laid off from food service, hospitality and events - some of whom have done farm work before - are chasing these jobs on farms. No doubt experience counts, but all new workers will receive training.

"The NFU estimates that nationwide the seasonal workforce is a third of its usual size. Although, having heard from a number of growers in Kent, we know that some of our members with larger farms have brought back as many of their experienced workers from eastern Europe as possible, so we believe the workforce may be less depleted in the South East."

Though, the managing director of Winterwood Farms in Maidstone said the uncertainty of how many eastern European workers will be available is making it harder to plan ahead to July and August - when farm workers are needed most but the state of lockdown is most unclear.

Stephen Taylor said: "Most places will normally have been taken up by the end of January as farms need to plan ahead.

Winterwood Farms managing director, Stephen Taylor
Winterwood Farms managing director, Stephen Taylor

"But 98% of fruit pickers at British farms come from eastern European countries and the problem is, we expect some of them might not come because of the lockdown.

"Then we have to think, do we offer English people the job, with the risk we could double book and end up with too many workers?"

The director adds the farm cannot rely on British workers to stay throughout the summer. He said: "The problem is if you offer a furloughed person a job but then they get told the restaurant where they work has reopened in July, they will go.

"Eight out of 10 English people who have applied were honest and couldn't guarantee they would be available for the whole summer, which is fine, that's why a large amount of these people might get a rejection straight away."

Whether Kent farmers have a less depleted workforce or not, there are still only so many vacancies to go around.

Nick Marston, chairman of British Summer Fruits, added: "There are only a certain number of jobs available on farms given the total national workforce of 29,000 and in the current circumstances with many workers applying for Universal Credit and many more furloughed, job applications are likely to far outnumber the availability of roles."

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

Read more: All the latest news from Kent


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