'Absolute bedlam' as hundreds turn up for free raspberries after Yorkshire farm cancels harvest because of worker shortage

A farm near York is allowing people to pick raspberries for free after finding it impossible to hire enough local staff to do the harvest.

Stock pic: Fresh raspberries for sale Picture: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

But demand was so high with hundreds of cars turning up at Ronda and Richard Morritt’s farm at Sand Hutton near York on Wednesday, they had to appeal to people to stop coming and return another day.

Mrs Morritt said they had not wanted the fruit to go to waste, adding: “We just thought we’d have 20 or 30 cars - but there were between 200 and 300 cars pulling in. It was absolute bedlam.

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“There’s not one red raspberry left - they just went crazy. We had to put a sign up saying please come back at the weekend, when there will be more red ones.”

She said they had totted up the costs of having European workers at the beginning of the pandemic last year and decided to try and hire locals instead.

While they had had enough workers wanting to pick asparagus in May, they had drawn a blank with raspberries - despite it being a job that would suit older people and offering part-time shifts.

“We only had four or five people interested,” she said. “People were saying today: ‘If I’d known I’d be offering a day’ - it’s too late now.”

She said far from being the “cheap labour” people imagined the costs of bringing in a European workforce ran into thousands before they started paying the wages. As well as paying an agency fee of £1,500, there was another £180 to pay per worker on top. Workers are paid a minimum of £8.91 an hour.

She added: “That’s £3,000, £4,000 before we’ve made a penny.

“Then you have to buy the caravans, have them all insured, have gas and electric certificates, get the kettles PAT tested. Then there’s the minibus to go to Asda to take them shopping, satellite internet, TVs, washing machines and freezers.”

Mrs Morritt said they’d probably end up coming out of raspberries next year, after nearly two decades, although they would stick with asparagus, which has much better margins. She said she was not blaming Brexit or Covid-19 - although neither had helped. “There’s lots and lots of different factors,” she said.

“We still don’t get much more per punnet than 10 years ago and labour costs are going up.

“A member of staff can cost us 80p per punnet and a punnet can make as little as 90p from the wholesaler. The margins are so tight. Even the price of punnets has gone up because of the price of oil - a top and bottom used to cost 6p, it’s now 12p.”

She said they’d stopped growing strawberries a few years ago “because it’s cheaper not to grow them.” “Our bank balance looked much healthier not growing 40 tonnes of strawberries,” she said.

“There’s a lot of people coming out of soft fruits according to our agronomist - if you’re not in it in a big way, it’s not worth it.”

Last week the food and drink industry called for a 12-month “Covid-19 recovery visa” to tackle a shortage of workers which is causing disruption and increasing costs.

National Farmers’ Union vice president Tom Bradshaw said farms were struggling to find the workforce to pick and pack the nation’s fruit and veg, with some labour providers seeing a 34 per cent shortfall in recruitment.

Mr Bradshaw said: “Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs.”