Farmer Focus: Labour worries are becoming a real issue

I’m sitting here trying to pen my column on a rather damp, autumnal August day and, unfortunately, I think the content of my piece might be equally as gloomy.

Admittedly, I am feeling the strain at the moment. Although on-farm production is pretty good, the wider industry outlook is a cause for major concern.

Labour shortages are rife across the whole supply chain: farms, hauliers and processors. This is being caused by more stringent rules on EU workers entering the UK, the furlough scheme, the growth of employment opportunities in other sectors, and the “pingdemic”.

About the author

Sophie Hope
Livestock Farmer Focus writer
Sophie Hope, Cheltenham, farms 380 sows indoors from farrow to finish, producing 10,000 pigs a year direct to Tesco, as well as 81,000 broiler-breeders. A straw-based system is currently in place with boars from composite commercial lines and some Hampshire used for hardiness.
Read more articles by Sophie Hope

But this isn’t just a short-term problem related to Covid; EU workers have left and aren’t returning, or they are finding alternative employment. We have certainly experienced this ourselves. 

Over the past six to eight months we have really struggled to recruit new employees into all aspects of our business: poultry, estate, but particularly pigs. This is extremely concerning as it places strain on the remaining staff, who we obviously cannot afford to lose.

Beyond the farm gate, some processing plants have had to cut their throughput by 25% due to staff shortages. This could result in backlogs on farms again; not ideal with feed costs so high and farms already under immense pressure.

See also: Defra survey asks for views on labour shortage

Frustratingly, demand for British pork is currently strong but can’t be met due to staff shortages, which will mean more imports.

We have been lobbying the government to help us alleviate the labour shortage by allowing those in food production to not be required to self-isolate, to allow in seasonal workers, allow a relaxation of visa rules, and to add farm workers and meat processors to shortage lists. 

The National Pig Association has also called for a compensation package for those most heavily affected by Covid; something that is already being delivered in Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

However, both of these cries for help have been rejected by the minister, who is calling for us to make farms more attractive to British workers and is citing a “slightly more optimistic outlook” for the pig sector as justification for not delivering a compensation package.