Strawberry fields forever?

It's strawberry season again, but who's putting the fruit into our punnets? For years its been migrant workers. But is the recession prompting out of work Brits to return to the fields? Clare Hargreaves investigates.

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As you delve into your strawberries and cream, that quintessentially British summer treat, spare a thought for the person that picked them. He or she was probably from Romania or Bulgaria like Filip Barbacaru, 24,  an economics student from Bucharest who has been picking British crops for three years in a row, and earns enough in four months to fund himself for the rest of the year.

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Filip first came over to Britain four years ago when he was studying business administration at university. He heard from his fellow students that good money could be made in the UK picking crops. “I picked strawberries for two months in Cambridgeshire,” he says. “It was quite painful for the first two weeks but I got used to it.”

Filip returned the following summer, then the one after that too. He says he can earn five times what he’d earn at home, and the money he saves during four months of picking funds him for the entire year. Virtually all his fellow students at university were doing picking jobs somewhere. “The UK is the most popular because the pay is best here,” he says.

The chances of your fruit being picked by a Brit are very small. Despite soaring unemployment during the economic downturn, we British would rather do anything else than pick crops. Land, it seems, has lost its lustre.

At the start of the strawberry picking season S&A Produce, Europe’s largest strawberry grower based in Herefordshire, advertised for British workers and got around a dozen applications for 2,000 jobs. “Given the economic climate we found this slightly surprising,” says spokeswoman Rebecca Edmonds.

Hard graft
Janet Oldroyd, whose family has been growing fruit and veg near Wakefield for four generations, reports a similar story. “With all the job losses, you’d have thought we’d be inundated, but we’ve had no calls from British casuals at all. Must we conclude that British people would rather be jobless on benefits than do hard physical work? Women kept agriculture going during the war – it’s not that hard!”

Jim Davies, general manager of HOPS Labour Solutions, a supplier of seasonal workers to UK farms, believes the situation is unlikely to change, even as unemployment nudges up towards three million. “We’re seeing a lot of highly skilled people being laid off from the car industry. The trouble is they have the wrong skills and are in the wrong place. They don’t want to move or leave their families for a four- to five-month job.”

So we’re unlikely to see a repeat of scenes at Lindsey Oil Refinery earlier this year, when local workers protested that foreigners were stealing their jobs, in the British countryside. We’re relieved, it seems, that someone, anyone, is willing to do our dirty work.

But does it matter who picks our crops? In the short term perhaps not: for workers from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, work on British farms has traditionally been fantastically paid and helped them feed their families back home. Filip Barbacaru, for example, says that here he can earn five times what he’d earn at home. And their labour gets British produce to our shops.

But the issue is a lot more complicated. Over the years British farms have become dependent on foreign labour, and recruitment systems are now geared around migrant, rather than British, workers. But many experts fear this makes us vulnerable, as this labour could dry up when conditions in the migrants’ home countries improve and they drift back home.

Immigration fears
Foreign farm labour has also become entangled with the thorny issue of immigration. Under pressure to clamp down on migrant workers, the government has said that next year it will phase out the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), which allows a strictly controlled number of workers from Bulgaria and Romania to pick our crops. This year the number is set at 21,250. Workers from other EU countries are also free to come and work here, but rarely do so because the UK’s pay and weather are inferior in many instances.

Many fruit and veg growers believe that the end of SAWS, which has run since just after the Second World War, could be disastrous and even force them to close their businesses. Experts say this
will mean we have to import more from abroad.
Could the crowds at Wimbledon soon be munching strawberries that come from California, rather than Herefordshire?

A National Farmers’ Union (NFU) survey last year showed that 61 percent of respondents said they’d lost income as a result of labour shortages. More than half the losses were crops that had no one to harvest them, so were left to rot in the ground.

Elaine Clarke, whose family has been farming at Manor Farm in Staffordshire for three generations, says she has been forced to throw away tonnes of strawberries in recent years because labour is so unreliable. “Last year around 100 out of our 130 seasonal workers came to us through the SAWS scheme, and even then we lost fruit because of labour problems. We rely on SAWS, so we’ve no idea how our strawberries and raspberries will get picked if the scheme ends.

“In the past we were also able to supplement SAWS people with workers from EU countries like Poland and Latvia. But conditions in those countries have been improving and the pound has been falling in value, so it is no longer worth their while,” she adds.

What about British labour? Forget it, says Elaine, who runs the farm with her brother. “Twenty years ago, if we put an ad in the local paper, we’d be inundated with phone calls. Now we’re lucky if we get five or six calls. The whole culture of work has changed.”

High expectations
Rebecca Edmonds, from S&A Produce, says students now have far higher expectations. “They would prefer to go trekking in Borneo or climb Kilimanjaro than pick strawberries in Herefordshire. They are not interested in enhancing their life experience closer to home any more.”

It’s a similar story on the Oldroyds’ farm in Wakefield. Last year the family lost around a quarter of the strawberry crop because they couldn’t find labour at the crucial time.

“Whenever we have advertised we’ve had very little response from local people,” says Janet Oldroyd. “The students earn good money but the work is hard on the back, and it’s this factor that seems to be the problem. British people seem to prefer keeping their backs straight and being indoors. When we’ve saved places for British applicants they usually don’t turn up.”

It’s not because of the money. Pickers are paid according to how much they pick, so a good worker can notch up £10 an hour and a slow one will earn the minimum agricultural wage of £5.74 an hour. “It’s not unusual for us to see payslips for between £600 and £700 a week,” says Jim Davies of HOPS.

There are downsides, because work is not constant throughout the year and it involves moving from place to place according to what crop is in season. But the biggest problem is image, believes Andrew Burgess, agronomy director of British vegetable conglomerate Produce World. “People still seem to have this image of low pay and bad conditions, but actually the money is pretty good and working outside in summer can be pleasant. I’ve done it myself.”

Many strawberry growers are now cultivating on tabletops instead of the ground, which makes harvesting easier and reduces the number of pickers needed. But manual labour is still vital because soft fruit cannot be picked by machine, and it has to be immediate because of soft fruit’s brief shelf-life.

Soft fruit shares many issues with the fruit and veg sector as a whole, which is shrinking by the day and being concentrated into fewer hands. Pressured by supermarkets and consumers demanding ever lower prices, and unaided by subsidies that other sectors have benefitted from, only large growers are managing to survive. For example, there are now around eight commercial carrot growers in the UK, and more fruit and veg is now imported as a result, with some carrots coming from as far away as Australia.

All this is happening against a backdrop of dwindling numbers of people wanting to go into farming and the ageing of farmers – the average age is now 59. The lack of affordable housing in the countryside is a major factor deterring many would-be farmers, but equally off-putting is its fusty image. “Farming isn’t cool for kids,” says beef farmer Helen Browning. “There’s a stigma involved with doing something practical. We need to change that, especially as we enter a period of post-peak oil, which will require more people being involved in food and farming.

“Farming is a complicated enterprise. You have to juggle being a soil scientist, accountant, vet, business planner and marketer, plus you also need to be able to get up in the middle of the night. Farming needs rounded people, yet the brightest and best have already left.”

Skills gap
In a bid to attract more young people to farming, the NFU has launched a new diploma in environmental and land-based studies for 14- to 19-year-olds, which will start in September.
It’s a positive step, but there is a long way to go. Many of our agricultural research stations have closed in the past 30 years – out of 17 that existed in the 70s, only three remain – while at agricultural colleges, emphasis has shifted from growing things to subjects like equine management.

“The problem is that the workforce just isn’t there. We’ve run it right down,” says Dr Charlie Clutterbuck, specialist adviser to the Environmental Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee on Food Security, which reports this month. “If we look 20 years ahead, will we still have the skills and knowledge to feed ourselves?”

With climate change and growing world populations putting increasing pressure on global food supplies, the issue of whether we have people to work UK fields is likely to become more pertinent. But for now, despite mass unemployment, there’s little sign that we Brits want to don our wellies and return to the fields.

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