The Government has announced a new pilot scheme to alleviate the pressures on growers caused by a short supply of workers at peak harvest times.
Under the new two-year pilot, which will begin next spring and run until the end of 2020, the Home Office will allow 2,500 workers from non-EU countries to be employed by fruit and vegetable farmers for up to six months at a time, upon completion of which migrant workers will have to leave the country.
The announcement is aimed at alleviating labour shortages on British farms during peak production periods.
Soft fruit production in the UK has grown by 130 per cent over the last two decades and the Government said that the pilot scheme is part of efforts to ensure that this growth continues and that the UK "is at the forefront of the next agriculture revolution".
Farmers must also look at ways that technology can reduce demands for physical labour, the announcement from the Home Office states.
With automated harvesting solutions not universally available, the pilot scheme will support farmers in the short term, the Government said, and will be used to explore how to keep British horticulture competitive. Almost all other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - Britain's competitors - source seasonal workers to pick fruit and vegetables.
Revealing the details of the new pilot scheme, Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “British farmers are vital to the UK’s economy and the Government will look to support them in any way we can.
“This pilot will ensure farmers have access to the seasonal labour they need to remain productive and profitable during busy times of the year.
“I am committed to having an immigration system that reduces migration to sustainable levels, supports all industry and ensures we welcome those who benefit Britain.”
And the Environment Secretary Michael Gove added: “We have listened to the powerful arguments from farmers about the need for seasonal labour to keep the horticulture industry productive and profitable.
“From lettuce in East Anglia to strawberries in Scotland, we want to make sure that farmers can continue to grow, sell and export more great British food.
“This two year pilot will ease the workforce pressures faced by farmers during busy times of the year. We will review the pilot’s results as we look at how best to support the longer-term needs of industry outside the EU.”
The Seasonal Workers pilot will be run by two scheme operators, who will oversee the placement of the workers. The arrangements for selecting the scheme operators will be announced in due course, the Government said.
To be eligible for the pilot, workers must be aged at least 18 on the date of application and be from outside of the European Union.