Farmers fear fruit ‘left to rot’ amid shortage of pickers

Increased costs and delays to paperwork are being blamed for discouraging Eastern European workers coming to Scotland.

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Soft fruit farmers fear berries could be left to rot in polytunnels due to a shortage of pickers coming from Eastern Europe.

Increased costs and delays to paperwork are being blamed for discouraging seasonal workers coming to Scotland.

Easter Grangemuir Farm, near Pittenweem in Fife is fully reliant on pickers coming from the continent to harvest the fruit.

Farm manager Nicoleta Descultu explains, “If we take, for example, a couple, if they want to come, it is €330 each – so a total €660, plus flight tickets, plus PCR test, plus some money before they earn their first money, so it will go to more than €1000.

“People cannot afford to come to the UK.

“So that’s why they will go for the easy option, other countries where they don’t have to pay to come to work.”

In previous seasons, 75% of seasonal workers coming from Europe would return to Scottish farms but this year the combination of Covid and Brexit has resulted in workers travelling to other countries instead where there is less paperwork and less cost.

The UK Government increased the number of seasonal workers allowed in the country from 10,000 to 30,000.

However farmers are warning of a looming crisis if delays with potential pickers’ paperwork aren’t resolved.

NFU Scotland Horticulture committee chair Iain Brown, who owns Easter Grangemuir Farm in Fife says the UK government needs to take urgent action to prevent fresh produce being left to rot.

“The announcement of one operator was only made at the end of April, the processing of these visas takes six weeks, explained Mr Brown.

“So that’s not going to help the start of the fruit and vegetable season in Scotland.  

“The effect will be the crops are not all harvested, which would be hugely disappointing and financially have serious consequences for businesses in Scotland.

“So with some urgency we need these visas issued to allow workers to get onto farms.”

Bulgarian farm mechanic, Boris Shopov, has been returning to Scotland every season for the last 16 years.

Mr Shopov, who has settled status and doesn’t need to fork out for a costly visa, said it is putting others off the idea of coming to the UK.

He told STV News: “I spoke with many of my friends and it’s more easy to go to work in Germany or Spain or Italy.

“To come here, if for first year you need to apply for visa, there is an interview, you need to spend more money, time and I’m not sure if everybody will get a visa so it will be more complicated.”

Last year, furloughed staff from sectors such as hospitality and tourism filled farms’ labour shortage but with Covid restrictions easing that option isn’t available this year.

Many farmers find local people are not interested in the early starts and long hours that fruit picking demands.

Without urgent intervention farms will be left without enough pickers and supermarket shelves could be without berries.