Strawberry farm loses 20pc of crop due to worker shortages

Simon Turner, owner and managing director of Sharrington Strawberries.

Simon Turner, owner and managing director of Sharrington Strawberries - Credit: Danielle Booden

A frustrated Norfolk fruit grower says about 20pc of his strawberries will remain unharvested this year after losing a third of his seasonal workforce after Brexit.

The industry faced a jobs crisis this year due to a lack of its usual eastern European workers, prompted by the end of free movement and compounded by the Covid pandemic.

That has left farmers searching further afield for workers, with some travelling from countries including Barbados, Nepal, Kenya and Russia.

Simon Turner of Sharrington Strawberries in the village near Holt, previously relied on a team from Romania and Bulgaria.

But they have not returned this year, so he signed up with an agency recruiting mainly from Ukraine.

Despite paying up to 50pc more in wages, he said he was still only able to recruit about two thirds of the 60 workers he needs to harvest his crop.

Workers picking strawberries by hand at Sharrington Strawberries

Workers picking strawberries by hand at Sharrington Strawberries - Credit: Danielle Booden

"We have really struggled with labour this year," he said. "We are about a third down on what we would usually require.

"We have tried to pick up the slack, but we have not picked everything and we have probably lost 20pc of the crop - but we have worked so hard and we have not lost as much as we could have.

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"Because we have still not got enough people we cannot get on with other work like tunnel building, planting, pruning and weeding, so that could affect next year's crop.

"In 40 years of growing, I have never seen it so difficult as this, and ultimately it is not sustainable.

"My manager and I are working 18-20 hours a day, seven days a week, to make it work. That is how tough it is. We will survive, but we hope it will get better.

A punnet of strawberries hand-picked at Sharrington Strawberries

A punnet of strawberries hand-picked at Sharrington Strawberries - Credit: Danielle Booden

"Brexit is what killed us. Prior to Brexit we could have a very good workforce from Bulgaria and Romania, but now it has dried up. Nearly all my people came from Ukraine this year.

"They are very nice people and some of them are really good, but many come from the cities - I have got teachers and a vet who work for me.

"What we do is hard work, and you won't get English people to do this. I am as patriotic as anyone - I would love to employ English people, but they do not want to do it."

Mr Turner said his labour costs were higher than many other fruit farms, as he grows strawberries in the soil while the majority of the UK's strawberries were grown on table-tops from substrates such as vermiculite or coir.

Following Brexit, the free movement of migrant farm labour from the EU ended and was replaced by a points-based immigration system. A pilot Seasonal Workers scheme launched in 2019 was extended this year to make 30,000 visas available for people to work on UK farms.

Mr Turner said he hoped for a further extension. "The industry needs 70-80,000 people every year, so there is still a huge shortfall," he added. 

Defra says it is also working with the food industry and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to raise awareness of career opportunities for UK workers to "reduce the sector’s dependency on seasonal migrant labour".