Visa delays mean seasonal workers from overseas have been unable to take up jobs on UK farms this spring.
With the busy harvest period just around the corner, the NFU has warned of a 20% shortfall in the number of seasonal workers required on UK farms.
The situation was deeply concerning, said NFU horticulture board chairman Ali Capper.
Although some workers had come to the UK, there had been a significant number of “no-shows,” Ms Capper told an NFU council meeting at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire.
“Where farmers thought workers were going to turn up, they didn’t turn up,” she said.
Daffodils had already been left unpicked on some farms, said Ms Capper on Tuesday (30 April).
The government’s pilot Seasonal Workers Scheme – which aims to allow 2,500 temporary workers into the UK – was failing to alleviate labour shortages, she warned.
The NFU is calling for the scheme to be extended from 2,500 places to 10,000 – an increase supported by former Defra minister George Eustice.
Immediate steps were needed so a fully operational scheme with at least 30,000 places was ready for 2020, he added.
“Many sectors in agriculture and horticulture are reporting acute difficulties recruiting labour for the 2019 harvest with fewer migrant workers returning to the UK,” said Mr Eustice, who tabled an parliamentary early-day motion on the issue last month.
Concerns have also been raised over plans that would see skilled immigrants allowed to settle in the country only if they earn more than £30,000.
The rule – which would apply to EU and non-EU workers – would be implemented in 2021 after the post-Brexit transition period.
Lower-paid workers would only be allowed into the UK for a maximum of 12 months.
They would then face a “cooling-off period” of a further 12 months.
The government says this would prevent lower-paid people settling in the UK permanently.
Ms Capper warned: “We don’t believe any of these measures would work for our industry.”
Home Office officials had indicated they were open to other ideas – which suggested they were listening to industry concerns, Ms Capper added.
The issue would also be raised with Defra’s “access to labour” team at an NFU horticulture board meeting on 14 May.