Shortage of workers means crops in danger of rotting in ground during coronavirus outbreak

Farming industry urgently seeking 80,000 labourers needed to pick and process fruit and vegetables

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British crops are at risk of rotting in the ground because of a "disastrous" shortage of seasonal workers caused by the coronavirus  pandemic.

The farming industry is urgently seeking 80,000 labourers needed to pick and process fruit and vegetables. The workforce to harvest crops – largely from eastern Europe – is usually recruited at this time of year, but the block on international travel caused by the outbreak has made that impossible.

Farmers are in urgent talks with ministers to find a solution to the impending crisis at a time when the supply chain to supermarkets is already under severe strain caused by panic buying and stockpiling.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU)  said on Monday that it was "urgently" seeking guidance from ministers on how to recruit farm labourers.

One possibility is a shift of hospitality workers – who no longer have jobs in the restaurant, pub and bar trade – to take up work on farms, but sources pointed out that making coffees and waiting on tables was a far cry from the heavy manual labour involved in picking and processing fruit and vegetables.

In a statement, the NFU said: "Growers that rely on seasonal workers to pick, pack and grade our fruit and veg are extremely concerned about the impact coronavirus measures may have on their ability to recruit workers this year. 

"The industry is already working hard to promote available roles on farms locally, recognising that this could help those who unfortunately find themselves out of work.

"We are urging the government to address this situation as soon as possible and to implement any solution as a matter of urgency."

The NFU estimates that at least 70,000 workers will be needed in the coming weeks. A source said: "We really don't know what the solution is at the moment. Year after year, the farming industry brings in the same seasonal workers who know what they are doing and are familiar with important food safety rules. Training up waiters and the like is not straightforward. Much of this work is heavy manual labour.

"This is going to be key in feeding Britain. In order for us to produce our own food, we rely on this workforce.

A second source said: "This is something farmers are very nervous about. It is potentially disastrous. It has a huge knock-on effect to food supply."

The problems for the industry are compounded by the wettest winter in recent history. "This pandemic could not have come at a worse time," said the source.

Analysis by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) suggests that "travel restrictions and illness" will leave Britain with a shortage of up to 80,000 agricultural workers. 

The CLA  said the shortfall comprises 60,000 seasonal workers from abroad who cannot come to the UK due to travel restrictions and a further 20,000 workers who will miss work through illness and self-isolation. 

Further problems are compounded by use of on-site hostels to house migrant workers, which would help spread coronavirus if city workers filled rural vacancies. 

The CLA has warned that "time is of the essence", with vegetable growers "already beginning to crop, lambing season has reached its peak and soft fruit – which must be picked within a three-day time period – is due to begin in April".  

Mark Bridgeman, the CLA president, said: "We all know this is a deeply concerning period, and we are all determined to do all we can to help the country through it. In order to do so, we must recognise that farmers' supply of labour is in jeopardy. A shortage of 80,000 workers is something we have never seen before. 

"We need urgent Government assistance to help source workers and advertise positions. Time is of the essence, as many farmers will soon begin, or have already, begun planting or harvesting.

"Farms and rural businesses are already suffering from the winter flooding and uncertainty over future international trading relationships. If we fail to find these key workers, businesses will go bust."

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "We continue to work closely with industry to ensure our food supply chains remain resilient and that our world-leading farmers and growers have the labour they need."