The UK fruit and vegetable fields are filled with the products we need, but who are digging for victory?
The strawberry blossom has just begun to appear on Christine Snell’s farm, turning her corner of Herefordshire into a colorful riot, heralding the arrival of spring.
In exactly six weeks, the endless sea of yellow and white flowers will be replaced by hundreds of thousands of berries, each slowly turning red in the sun.
Shortly thereafter, Windmill Hill begins producing its summer crops of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and black currants.
In a normal season, more than 2,000 tons of fruit will be picked from the 500-acre rolling countryside of Christine and her husband Anthony, before being sorted and packaged on-site and shipped to the country’s supermarkets.
Pictured: Members of the Women’s Land Army walk with pitchforks over their shoulders during World War II in 1943
But this is no longer a normal season.
Instead, thanks to the corona virus, Christine has to climb a mountain. Because like almost every British farmer whose crops have to be picked by hand – and that includes a wide range from berries and asparagus to salads, apples, pears and hops – she faces an unprecedented battle to take her products from field to fork.
The Snells, like almost every other producer in our horticultural sector, employ several hundred seasonal workers to harvest their crops every summer.
About 98 percent are from Eastern Europe, but with much of Europe locked up, they can’t get here.
So she will have to recruit substitutes in the UK in an incredibly short time – the government has identified pickers as critical workers because they are in food production. If that doesn’t work, the Snells’ crops will continue to rot.
‘In the high season we need between 250 and 300 people to keep up. We currently only have 50 on site, ”she says. “If you do not pick fruit when it ripens, it will start to mold very quickly and all the new fruit that appears will also be affected.”
The UK is self-sufficient in most summer fruits for about six months of the year. In the photo: a country girl works on a farm
For Christine and Anthony, who have been working on their surgery for 30 years, the implications would simply be devastating. And if the crops are not harvested across the country, everyone will be affected.
The UK is self-sufficient in most summer fruits for about six months of the year.
If strawberries – we eat 74,000 tons annually – and other products disappear from the food chain, the UK will either have to import additional supplies (no easy feat during a global pandemic) or simply go hungry.
“Financially, not being able to find pickers is a disaster for us. We have already put nearly £ 1 million into this year’s crop, ”says Christine. “But if it hits us, it will hit farmers everywhere and that’s a disaster for Britain because food just disappears from the shelves.”
Food security is a serious matter that has forced the coronavirus into national consciousness. Forget vanishing sandwiches and pasta, what happens when all the UK-produced fresh vegetables, fruits and salads disappear from the supply chain?
All of this is behind the launch of a campaign called Feed The Nation, which aims to find Britons to fill some of the 90,000 seasonal agricultural jobs traditionally occupied by overseas workers.
And it could be just as important to help our country survive in the coming months as the campaign to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers to help the NHS.
“Without wanting to alert people, this is a real national emergency,” said Stephanie Maurel, the director of Concordia, a recruiter who provides approximately 8,000 seasonal workers.
World War II posters (left and right) encouraged the nation to grow their own vegetables
Food is growing. It cannot be stopped. And if it does not start to be picked soon, fruit crops will rot, lettuce will be attacked by birds.
“It will create a huge gap in our ability to prevent the population from starving.”
Maurel’s ethical non-profit organization was founded in World War II to help German prisoners of war and exiled French troops harvest crops as part of the national effort to dig for victory with the Land Girls.
She believes that this moment of national crisis, which has already been compared to a war on Downing Street, deserves a similar Churchillian response.
“We are looking for everyone: employees who have recently lost their jobs, especially in the catering industry, students who have been sent home, everyone. Please come forward. You are going to offer a crucial public service and earn good money. ‘
Since the campaign was launched last week, around 8,000 people have signed up. Maurel hopes that a ‘substantial portion’ will be allocated to local farms in the coming weeks. But the grim truth is that we need tens of thousands more.
It won’t be easy, of course: farm work is notoriously arduous, but it’s also well-paid and rewarding, and relatively easy to do while preserving the all-important “social distance” protocols.
‘I did it. It is no fun. But you roll up your sleeves, remove your nail polish – and work hard, “says Maurel. “Your back will hurt for the first two weeks, but it’s generally fine after that.
“On a nice day, when the sun is on your back, it’s a great job, but when the rain comes down and mud comes up to your knees, well. . . ‘
On the borders of Monmouthshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, where I live, there is an urgent need for volunteers.
Known as the ‘Asparagus Triangle’, this area produces about a quarter of the country’s asparagus. Harvest starts in many locations next week.
“Asparagus needs a lot of management because it grows in fits and starts, and if it is not cut constantly, the seed will sow and that is all season long,” a local producer told me this week. “We are just a few days away from that process, and I am at least 200 workers short.”
Another farmer, who supplies to almost every major retailer, told me that only 80 of the nearly 1,000 workers they need on the spot are currently in the UK. “Some come here, but they’re really just messes,” he says.
Asparagus can grow four inches a day. You can almost see it growing and it needs to be cut quickly.
“If we can’t do that, it’s gone.”
It must be said that this farmer (who wanted to remain anonymous), like many of his colleagues – and based on their previous experience – is somewhat pessimistic about a flood of British workers responding to the call. But for now he crosses his fingers.
“Maybe this year will be different,” he adds. “I can only pray that it is so. Otherwise, the consequences are too terrible to think about. ‘
In Lincolnshire, where much of the UK’s domestic lettuce crop is produced, farmers are also hoping Feed The Nation will keep them in business.
Stuart Piccaver, whose family-owned 1,200-acre Jepco produces up to 500 tons of leaf salad, scallions, lettuce, and spinach each week, says he should recruit about 150 workers by the end of April.
‘In normal years boys from Eastern Europe book an internship with us. We have not completely given up that they came here this year.
“We can even do charter flights if necessary, because they have been designated as critical workers. But it gets tricky – or else we need a huge drive to replace them. ‘
Stuart urges students whose courses have been canceled to bring groups of friends together to take to the fields.
Not only would they provide a public service, but they would also help pay off their student loans. It is, he says, a “no-brainer.”
“People who sign up need to know where they’re going. It is difficult. But once you get fit and get used to it, you will find it very rewarding, ”he says.
Usually, farm work pays the minimum wage (which will increase to £ 8.72 an hour from next month), plus a bonus depending on how fast you can work.
Most skilled pickers pay £ 10 an hour and experienced workers take home around £ 100 a day, working six days a week.
Almost every producer will house workers on site in subsidized accommodation which costs around £ 50 per week.
Sarah Boparan, chief executive of HOPS, a major recruiter owned by the National Federation of Young Farmers, who supports Feed The Nation, says employees should be able to catch early starts (around 5am is typical in the summer) and occasional long hours.
“You work in any weather, it’s repetitive and farmers should be able to count on you coming in every day,” she says. Some days you start very early, at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., because strawberries become soft when they get the sun on them. If we don’t meet this challenge, the consequences will be devastating. ‘
Will today’s young British, increasingly dismissed as snowflakes or couch potatoes, respond to this call? In Kent, the Garden of England, they certainly hope so.
Marion Regan, whose 120-year-old family-owned Hugh Lowe Farms supplies berries to every supermarket, currently has around 175 employees on site, but needs 700 to bring in the crops. She now receives a ‘steady drop’ of interest after posting an urgent request on her website.
She says, “Some are people who have lost their jobs and don’t know where the next paycheck will come from. Some are students who planned to work or travel during summer events.
‘And we also see local, enthusiastic people who want to help bring in the harvest. If there is a bright spot in this, it might breathe new life into the old Kentish tradition of people working in the fields every summer.
“But this is a real emergency, and anyone who decides to help on a farm will play a critical role in the fight against this disease.”
To register, go to www.concordia.org.uk/feed-the-nation.