Farmers are warning that the UK government needs to act fast to ensure a supply of seasonal migrant labour after Brexit. Arrivals are already dropping, and they warn farms could move or close down. Lucy Fielder reports.
Raspberries - as essential to a British summer as the EU workers who pick them. But both could be in short supply after Brexit. This farm in Kent, southern England, has grown fruit for seventy years. It relies on twelve hundred seasonal labourers, mostly Bulgarians. But the plummeting pound has devalued their wages. And the UK government is negotiating to control immigration from the European Union once it leaves. Meaning Britain's becoming a less appealing choice. (SOUNDBITE) (English) SALEH HODZHOV, FARM MANAGER, SAYING: When you want to build your future, you want certainty, you want to know exactly what's going to happen. The Bulgarian and Romanian people are kind of thinking about going back, because their economies are going back up a bit. Arrivals were down seventeen percent this year, the farmers union said. And local people don't want jobs for just six months. If the shortage worsens, food prices could rise. Tim Chambers is now looking to relocate part of the family farm to where labour's cheap and plentiful. Other large producers could do the same. (SOUNDBITE) (English) FARMER AT W.B. CHAMBERS & SON, TIM CHAMBERS, SAYING: We have partners abroad who provide fruit to us at the moment, and we are looking to start producing product in Poland, under our own badge rather than as a partnership. Although at the moment it's not a necessity, we're planning for potential changes. For smaller farms, that's not an option. This lettuce-grower down the road employs a hundred and twenty seasonal workers. The UK used to have six-month labour permits for foreign students, but the scheme shut down three years ago. Commercial director Nick Ottewell says there'll have to be another one. If it gets much harder to recruit, farms like this will close. (SOUNDBITE) (English) FARMING DIRECTOR AT LAURENCE J BETTS, NICK OTTEWELL, SAYING: I really do think that it's unrealistic now because it's dragged for so long, without any real action happening already, that they're going to have a scheme in place in time. The political instability that has happened now is just pushing back and pushing back any action being taken and farmers are potentially going to be staring over the cliff-face in 2019. Some may have little appetite for the permits, since many Brexiteers want to slash immigration. But the country's food security will depend on them, farmers say. Otherwise, imports will replace food left to rot in UK fields.