NFU president Meurig Raymond has called for the reintroduction of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme to allay fears of a labour shortage in the fruit and vegetable industry at future harvests.
Mr Raymond said there were enough seasonal workers to help on farms during this year’s harvest season.
But he believes this may not be the case in future years when the demise of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) begins to have an effect on the agricultural industry.
“We have been monitoring the situation with our horticultural members. They are nervous going forward,” said Mr Raymond.
“They would like to see a scheme set up similar to SAWS. This year hasn’t been a problem. There is enough people in the system. But going forward, there is concern, especially if we want to grow the fruit and vegetable industry.”
Mr Raymond said until its abolition in 2013 by the government, SAWS provided a reliable source of migrant labour to the UK horticulture sector.
The scheme supplied a steady quota of seasonal workers from Bulgaria and Romania, to boost workforces, especially during the busy harvest season.
But with the removal of SAWS, growers faced an uncertain labour supply to meet the growing demand for British produce.
Mr Raymond said the government could introduce a system similar to SAWS that would help foreign students find seasonal agricultural work in the UK.
He also called for a culture change in the way British workers, including those who were unemployed, view careers in agriculture.
“There are too many people in the UK that think farming is menial and it’s not really an interesting career choice,” he said.
“Where people have tried to employ more local people, it often causes more difficulties than solutions.
“There are a lot of eastern European workers who are working in highly skilled jobs in the horticultural industry. And there is good career progression within the industry.”
Cobrey Farms, a 1,011ha family-run farm in Ross-on-Wye, hired 950 seasonal workers this year to help with production of asparagus, blueberries, potatoes and vines.
Catherine Chinn, human resources manager at Cobrey Farms, said: “Originally, SAWS was put together to encourage young people to come to the UK, learn about agriculture and improve their English.
“SAWS was a scheme that worked. Therefore something based on a similar system would be a good thing for agriculture.
“We didn’t lose workers this year, as expected. But this is just the short term. It’s the effect of not having the scheme in the future that we are concerned about.
“Eastern European workers will be free to find jobs in other industries, such as cleaning or working in a warehouse, where they can work indoors but will be paid the same money.
“But in agriculture, you work outdoors and you have to work in all weathers.”
She added: “The SAWS scheme enabled the UK Border Agency to keep a record of migrant workers coming in and out of the country. They were able to tell when people arrived and when they left.”
Mr Raymond criticised the government’s decision to scrap SAWS in the NFU’s 2015 General Election Manifesto , which was launched on Wednesday (17 September).
But the Home Office said the government had no plans to introduce SAWS or a similar scheme.
A Home Office spokesman said: “The horticultural industry should be able to meet demand for temporary seasonal workers by recruiting within the UK and the rest of the EU. The government does not intend to open a new seasonal workers scheme.”