The labour-intensive fruit sector was the worst affected by labour shortages, according to the National Farmers’ Union’s end-of-season horticultural report.
Some 43 per cent of growers reported they had suffered seasonal labour issues last year, while a large proportion also expect these difficulties to intensify as labour becomes more costly and harder to find.
Fifty-three per cent of growers said they expected increased labour costs in 2016, and 84 per cent expect the same by 2018.
Another 66 per cent envisaged a lower supply of labour by 2018.
East Yorkshire-based grower Guy Poskitt, vice-chairman of the NFU’s national horticulture and potatoes board, endorsed the survey findings, saying: “Many NFU members who grow soft fruit and other crops are experiencing a shortfall in seasonal labour and I think it will only get worse.”
He said it was a mistake not to replace the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme after it was abolished in 2013.
“Another benefit of SAWS was that a worker was allocated to a job and when the work was finished they would go home. You could see how it could reduce immigration and having foreign workers out of work and relying on state benefits,” he added.
The NFU wants a new student workers scheme to address the situation.
Kevin Hollinrake, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, agreed, saying: “We need a replacement for the previous scheme. I don’t think there’s any other way of getting food picked off trees and from our fields.
“Some are concerned that some people who come from other countries don’t return when their employment is up and I think it’s right that proper checks in place. But these workers are vital to our economy.”
Janet Oldroyd Hulme, a rhubarb and strawberry grower in Carlton, West Yorkshire, said she only had a stable supply of labour was because her largely Romanian seasonal workforce came to work on the farm through SAWS.
She said: “We have a lot of staff now that we have trained year on year who come for three months and go home.”
The farm has been involved in schemes to secure the long-term unemployed and local young people as seasonal labour resources, she said, but both had proved unreliable and unsustainable.
Defra said that the Industry/Government Working Group on Seasonal Agricultural Labour had confirmed that there was no shortage of seasonal workers during the 2015 harvest, although a spokesman did add: “We now understand that a limited number of growers struggled to recruit enough people.”
Defra maintained that its efforts to promote careers in food and farming is paying-off, saying “record numbers” of young people are looking to work in the industry.
The department has supported the BrightCrop initiative to promote careers and jobs in farming and horticulture, and that JobCentrePlus has worked with the horticultural industry to learn more about work in agriculture and has trained its advisors to help UK nationals into seasonal work.