Fruit and veg worth £22m left to rot due to labour shortages

The NFU has demanded an increase in the number of visas for seasonal workers after its analysis showed fruit and vegetable crops worth £22m have been wasted due to labour shortages in the first half of 2022.

Growers have been forced to plough in hundreds of tonnes of crops this season and there is industry concern about the lack of labour for upcoming top fruit harvests as the worker shortage hits businesses.

A survey of 199 growers across England and Wales, which between them employ more than 22,000 seasonal workers, revealed that 40% are suffering crop losses as a result of seasonal staff shortages.

See also: Defra launches new inquiry into labour shortages

As the survey represents around one-third of the UK horticulture sector, the NFU estimates the overall value of food wasted accumulates to more than £60m in the first six months of this year.

There is frustration and bemusement among growers that despite the government’s National Food Strategy pledge to expand the UK’s horticultural sector, the number of visas offered through the 2022 Seasonal Worker scheme does not come close to what the industry needs.

This year 38,000 visas have been made available, but the NFU says the sector requires 70,000 workers.

NFU labour survey key results

  • 63% of workers were recruited through the Seasonal Worker scheme
  • 33% of workers recruited through the scheme were returnees
  • Farm businesses expect 69% of workers to come through the scheme in 2023
  • 56% of respondents reported a fall in production – averaging a 19% reduction across the businesses
  • So far in 2022, businesses are experiencing worker shortages of 14% (based on recruitment, before accounting for early leavers)
  • 17% of workers recruited did not turn up
  • 9% of workers left their contract early
  • Growers expect a further fall in production in 2023 of 4.4%

The union wants more visas offered under a rolling scheme of at least five years, to give growers confidence to invest in their businesses. Defra has said the Seasonal Worker scheme will stop at the end of 2024.

NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw said it was “nothing short of a travesty” that food was going to waste during the cost-of-living crisis.

“This survey has demonstrated just how crucial it is for fruit and veg growers to have access to the workforce they need,” Mr Bradshaw said.

“Expanding the Seasonal Worker scheme will play a vital role in enabling that access and ensuring we don’t see this devastating level of food waste next year.”

£250,000 crop waste

Derek Wilkinson, managing director of Sandfields Farms, which grows salads and vegetables in Warwickshire and Worcestershire, lost £250,000 on his spring onion and asparagus crops when he had a shortfall of 120 seasonal workers in May.

The grower was unable to recruit workers from Ukraine through the Seasonal Worker scheme due to the war, and staff he did manage to hire from alternative countries, such as Moldova, Romania and Bulgaria, faced huge delays getting visas.

“It was taking six to eight weeks for the government to process a visa for people, which was absolutely hopeless and left us desperately short of staff,” he told Farmers Weekly.

This led to about 45t of asparagus and 750,000 bunches of spring onions going to waste.

“At a time when people are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, we were ploughing perfectly good, edible crop in which then had to be replaced with imported product,” Mr Wilkinson said.

Mr Wilkinson has since been able to fill his requirement of 700 seasonal workers for July and August, but says there is no “slack in the system” and is worried about the future of growers’ businesses due to the chronic labour shortages.