Farmers call for an army of Land Girls – and boys – to help pick fruit and veg because travel ban means they have lost thousands of foreign workers

  • Travel bans mean farmers have lost the help they need to work in the fields
  • British Summer Fruits fears produce will rot in fields and orchards
  • The industry will be mounting a large-scale recruitment campaign for workers
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

Farmers say the fall-out of the coronavirus chaos means they desperately need an army of Land Girls – and boys.

Travel bans brought in to prevent the spread means they have lost the thousands of foreign workers they need to pick fruit and veg crops.

The industry trade body British Summer Fruits is warning that produce will rot in the fields and orchards unless they can find replacements.

During the Second World War, when much of the workforce was on the frontline overseas, battalions of young women made up the ‘Land Girls’ who worked the fields to keep food on table.

Travel bans brought in to prevent the spread means they have lost the thousands of foreign workers they need to pick fruit and veg crops

Travel bans brought in to prevent the spread means they have lost the thousands of foreign workers they need to pick fruit and veg crops

At a time when Boris Johnson has put the government and country on a war footing against the Covid-19 infection, similar measures are now needed, claims the industry.

In theory, thousands of people in the hospitality industry who are likely to lose their jobs or university students might be available. However, the recruitment efforts are made particularly difficult because of concerns about the spread of the infection and the need for people to go into self-isolation.

Chairman of British Summer Fruits, Nick Marston, said: ‘We are entering an unprecedented time.

‘As restrictions on our day-to-day lives increase and challenges build, British farming and the horticultural industry has an ever more important role in helping us maintain our health and nutritional wellbeing.’ He said: ‘The British berry industry has for many years relied on workers from mainland Europe to provide seasonal labour to pick our crops due to a severe lack of availability of local workers.

‘Last year 98 per cent of harvest staff were from outside the UK. We are now very concerned about securing enough workers to help harvest our vital crops and get fresh fruit and vegetables to the public.

‘To help, in the next few days the berry industry will be mounting a large-scale recruitment campaign to encourage people who are in the UK and looking for work because of the current economic impact of the coronavirus to come and work on our farms.

‘However, we also need the government to help too. We need the government to classify food supply chain workers as essential workers. This would mean that our supply chain including harvest and packhouse staff on our farms, would be protected.

‘Without these critical workers we will not be able to get our fresh fruit and vegetables from the farm to the shops.

‘We also need the government to give us clarity on whether workers we have already recruited from overseas can travel to the UK to work. For example, workers hired to pick our fruit from Romania need to be able to travel to the UK. We need to know whether they are going to be able to travel to help us pick our fruit.

A large scale recruiting campaign is set to get underway

‘Finally, in line with our recruitment campaign, we want the British government to work with us to encourage workers who are already resident in the UK and looking for work and may have been employed in sectors such as hospitality to consider seasonal work on our UK berry farms.’

Mr Marston UK berry farms are taking a number of steps to prevent illness spreading amongst their workforce. They are restricting access to their sites to essential visitors only, controlling who comes in and out, and questioning new staff arrivals on potential symptoms.

He said most farms are able to split their workforce into teams and keep these teams isolated from one another to prevent too many people being ill at once.

He added: ‘The risk of spread among farm workers is also reduced by the open-air nature of harvesting activity; farms unlike offices, are large places where people can spread out.

‘Many farms also have a number of separate campsites which helps with the separation of groups of workers.

‘If self-isolating is needed for any staff almost all accommodation is in large numbers of ‘caravan park’ style permanent units sleeping three or four persons which means anyone suffering symptoms can isolate easily in a dedicated unit and have food brought to them for the period of time needed.

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