Farmers and growers in West Sussex have called for MPs to protect standards and avoid a labour shortage that would “leave food in the ground”.
With the government’s new Agriculture Bill underway, five MPs from the county were told it must go hand in hand with trade and immigration policy, to support domestic producers and ensure they are not undermined.
The NFU welcomed the expansion of the Seasonal Workers Pilot for 2020 but expressed concern at the lack of an entry route for 2021, which it said would severely impact farm businesses and hit the country’s ability to produce fruit and vegetables in particular.
The numbers of non-EU workers allowed in under the pilot will be set at 10,000 in 2020 – a fourfold increase on the 2019 scheme, but well short of the estimated 70,000 needed by the UK horticultural sector.
Mark Chandler, NFU chairman for West Sussex, told Farmers Weekly the issue was “absolutely critical” for the sector.
He said: “They need to start recruiting this autumn for next year’s harvest and there will literally be food left in the ground if we can’t make that happen.
“In terms of timescale, that is top of the agenda and it must happen; we need a commitment.”
MPs Andrew Griffith, Gillian Keegan, Jeremy Quin, Tim Loughton and Mims Davies met farmers and growers from the Arun to Adur cluster group at Lychpole Farm near Worthing on Friday 28 February, to hear about a five-year project to improve soil health on nine farms.
Addressing concerns about migrant labour, Andrew Griffith, the Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, said it was “absolutely essential” that farmers get continued access to workers and the needs of the different sectors were met.
“What I need and what I am working with local farmers on is: what are those specifics?” said Mr Griffith.
“Where are they [the workers] coming from? What time do we need them to make sure that the [points-based migration scheme] scheme, which I welcome, does actually create an architecture that is very flexible, so you can bolt onto that different programmes for different types of workers.”
With the government piloting its future approach, the time to have these discussions is now, to ensure the labour was accessible, he added.
The NFU is seeking a commitment from government on a global seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme from 2021 for fruit, vegetable and flower farms and viticulture.
The union added that the scheme must cover labour providers and direct recruiters, allowing the agricultural industry to access the 70,000 workers nationwide it needs.
Historically, about 60% of these workers have been EU nationals.
From next year, the government will end free movement of EU citizens to the UK and it has decided not to add agriculture and horticulture to its Shortage Occupation List.
Migrant workers who wish to work in the UK in these industries will have to apply instead through seasonal and other worker visa schemes.