Agriculture has depended on seasonal workers from elsewhere in the EU.
HAREWOOD END, England — After a dozen futile calls to big farms, agricultural lobbyists and labor contractors, we finally found him.
The rarest of the rare, the British berry picker.
Meet Max Hughes, a 20-year-old university student and history major, who is spending his summer harvesting black currants at the Snell family farm in Herefordshire. He rides in the back of a harvester all day, standing beside a Czech migrant and a couple of sun-bronzed Romanian guys, who know very little English.
“No matter, you can’t hear a thing they say over the noise,” Hughes said, gesturing toward the wheeled harvester beside him. Its vibrating metal fingers shake the currant bushes and bring the tart berries via conveyor belt to the sorting table, where Hughes and his teammates discard the leaves, twigs, slugs and occasional mouse — whatever you don’t want to see in a frozen-fruit pack.
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Britain today is completely dependent on foreign workers to pick its fruit and vegetables. According to the National Farmers Union, an industry lobbying group, of the 60,000 seasonal workers in the fields last year, barely one percent was British. The vast majority come from Eastern Europe, mainly Bulgaria and Romania.
As long as Britain has remained part of the European Union (EU), by treaty its doors have been wide-open to the “free movement” of fellow members, including those seasonal farmworkers who come for four or five months, get paid in British pounds and return home for the winter.
But as Britain prepares to leave the EU, bringing the era of free movement to a close, farmers have begun to panic: Who will pick the crops next spring?
Already, labor shortages driven by economic shifts have left produce rotting in the strawberry fields and the high-tech, hydroponic poly-tunnels where top-tier soft fruit is produced. Jacqui Green, chief executive of the Berry Gardens growers cooperative, reports a 30 to 40 percent shortfall in labor this year.
“It’s pretty grim,” Green said. “And it’s probably going to get worse before it potentially gets better, post-Brexit.”
During the 2016 Brexit campaign, anxiety over mass migration was tops, fueled in part by claims that, for example, millions of Muslims would arrive as soon as Turkey joined the EU. (Turkey is not in the union and has no prospect of joining in the foreseeable future.)
With Britain’s exit from the bloc, Prime Minister Theresa May vows that the country will regain “control of our borders” and dramatically curtail immigration.
Yet critics of Brexit argue that Britain desperately needs foreign workers — not only “the best and brightest” in finance, tech and medicine, who May promises will still be welcome, but those who clean hotel rooms in Brighton, man kitchens in London and harvest tomatoes in Norfolk.
If far fewer workers come from Europe, those jobs will have to be filled by Brits — who don’t seem very keen, truth be told — or contracted from Belarus or Nepal or the Philippines.
Britain had such a foreign farmworker scheme in the past, but it was scrapped — and now there are growing calls to restart it.
Stephanie Maurel, the chief executive of Concordia, a recruitment company that supplies workers to about 200 British farms, said they’ve had virtually zero Brits apply.
“We’ve had two applications out of 10,000,” she said. “It’s statistically quite damning.”
Asked why Brits aren’t high on the work, she recited the list: early hours, long days, physical toll, seasonality, lack of affordable transport, “and, quite simply, the farms aren’t in places with high levels of unemployment.”
And, unless you’re a local, you live in a trailer. Often a nice trailer, with Wi-Fi, but still.
Maurel said some Brits work in less taxing farm jobs — as logistics managers or office staff — but even those higher-paying, indoor jobs are mostly taken by Eastern Europeans these days.
She said the rare British workers who give the fruit and vegetable harvest a try, “literally don’t last a week.”
Hughes and three other university students are the only Brits harvesting berries at the Snell family farm this summer, out of a workforce of 300.
“That’s quite something, isn’t it?” said Christine Snell who owns the award-winning, environmentally sensitive farm with her husband, Anthony. “We want to get the message across: If we could recruit British workers, we would, but we cannot.”