Published: 06:00, 30 June 2020
Robot fruit pickers could solve the industry's skilled recruitment crisis, says a Kent farm boss.
Giles Cannon, who manages Roughway Farm near Tonbridge, says his farm has been "overwhelmed" with job interest in recent weeks as hundreds of people seek to work as fruit pickers at the Roughway Lane site.
This comes several weeks after a national call was made by the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, urging students and furloughed workers to apply for seasonal farm work amid feared shortages.
However, hiring experienced staff has proven challenging for the agricultural sector.Mr Cannon, who has worked in the farming sector for decades, said: "To call fruit picking an unskilled job is doing the industry a disservice."
Farmers around the world are increasingly interested in robot technology to address the long-term decline in skilled labour, according to 2019 research carried out by Fieldwork Robotics, a company linked to the University of Plymouth.
In May 2019, the world's first raspberry-picking robot was trialled in the UK. It significantly outpaced human workers in an eight-hour shift, studies have showed.
"There is a real problem with finding skilled staff at the moment. Until full-scale robotic machines arrive and become a reality we are always going to need to find somebody to harvest the crops," Mr Cannon added.
Mr Cannon, who is in his 50s, said the majority of UK farmers have been heavily reliant on an Eastern Europe workforce since the 1990s.
Many have been able to quickly adapt to the labour-intensive work, farm bosses have said. However, there have been fears around foreign worker shortages amid lockdown and travel restrictions.
Hundreds of people have applied for a fruit-picking job at the Tonbridge-based farm, which has a total of 60 workers at the moment.
Mr Cannon said: "There are no shortages of applications but unfortunately many new recruits are not massively experienced in this type of work."
The quality of the workforce is dependent on the level of training and it can take weeks for new recruits to be coached and fully trained.
Adapting to the heat and climate, with temperatures soaring to more than 30 degrees last week, can also prove challenging.
In light of pressures on the farming industry, Kent County Council's (KCC) scrutiny committee has agreed to launch an inquiry into the impact of lockdown on the rural sector.
East Malling Cllr Matthew Balfour (Con) said: "Unless some part of KCC, like the scrutiny committee, takes a real role in supporting the rural economy, there is a danger that lots and lots of farmers will go bust this year."
Read about our reporter's fruitless attempts to become a berry picker.
KMTV report on the recruitment push