OPINION: Immigrant labour is backbone of many farms

Few UK citizens would have failed to be concerned at the level of uncontrolled immigration into this country over recent years.

But some of the papers have gone into overdrive. Even those here legally, they allege, are “flooding” our schools with children who can’t speak English; they’re overwhelming hospitals, especially maternity wards; and occupying houses, often at rate payer’s expense. They contribute, so sections of the press report, to increased crime figures and squeeze local people out of the job market, thereby increasing unemployment and draining social security funds.

But consider the following. A few days ago I met a dairy farming friend from South Wales who milks 1,200 cows in two herds. They’re milked three times a day and all his cowmen are Polish. When I asked him why, he replied that he couldn’t get local people to do it and that the Poles did an excellent job.

Our favourite asparagus supplier grows almost 81ha on land not too far from here, so we benefit from easy access to fantastic fresh spears through the season. Each year he brings in 70 to 80 Bulgarians for the harvest period. Some cut in the fields. Others run his washing and packing facilities and the shop in the yard.

If I were prevented from bringing these superb workers into the country I would have to give up growing the crop, he told me. I’ve tried getting local labour and there aren’t people out there that will do the job.

Another friend runs a large company in the Fens growing, packing and marketing salads to the big supermarkets. He brings in a few hundred workers from former Soviet bloc countries every year and like the asparagus grower, accommodates them while they are there. His business, too, would not be viable were this practice to cease. The same must apply to several other similar businesses in that area.

I was told recently that one in six of the residents of Swaffham in Norfolk are immigrants working at jobs associated with horticulture. Kings Lynn has a big population of Chinese with a similar job spectrum. And Boston in Lincolnshire is said to have a ratio of immigrants to locals greater than any other town in the country.

I could go on. The cases I have cited amount to a tiny proportion of the phenomenon and only serve to illustrate the huge reliance of labour-intensive agriculture and horticulture on immigrant labour.

The thing is, at some time in the future the economies of those countries supplying us with labour will improve and the likelihood must exist that sooner or later many of the workers currently helping us will return home. Indeed, it’s already started with a trickle of Poles realising they can now earn decent wages in Poland and beginning to move back to be nearer their families.

If and when that trickle becomes a flood, with the workers’ native countries becoming more attractive than the UK, the question must be asked – who will do the work they do at present?

Farm colleges are doing their best to recruit students to fill the potential vacuum, but by their own admission are falling behind potential demand. In any case, successful students will want to manage rather than labour. Our industry must somehow urgently attract a lot more young British people. If we fail, the productivity and structure of farming as we know it will be seriously depleted in a few years.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna. His son Rob is farm manager.

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