After weeks of uninterrupted sunshine the strawberry season is in full swing in the so-called Garden of England.
But with a shortage of seasonal labourers to pick the fruits, a trend exacerbated by Brexit, there are growing fears many may be left to rot on their stems.
“We will end up with a problem,” said Alastair Brooks, who runs a 60-hectare farm near the town of Faversham in the southern fruit-growing county of Kent.
“The agencies that we use for recruiting are saying now that they are not going to be able to fill any vacancy after August.”
His operation in Kent produces about 1 200 tonnes of strawberries and 400 tonnes of raspberries annually from April to November.
“There’s definitely a tightening of the labour market,” added Brooks, 50, who employs 20 permanent and 180 seasonal workers.
“If you go back even to last year, there were four or five applicants for every job, and this year we have to chase people.
“We will see fruits left, not only in this farm, but across the country,” he predicted.
A recent study by British Summer Fruits, the biggest industry body, found three out of five soft fruit growers are struggling to recruit the 30,000 seasonal staff needed.
Around 95 percent of the workers currently come from Eastern Europe.
“At the moment berry farms are typically between 10 and 15 percent short of people,” its chairman Nick Marston said.
“Growers say they expect that position to be worse next year.”
Soft fruit production in Britain has grown over the past 20 years by 131 percent ― largely as a result of an increase in home-grown strawberries.
The industry is now worth more than £1.2-billion ($1.6-billion; 1.4-billion euros).
The staff shortage is not restricted to fruits, with the entire horticultural sector buffeted by Brexit and improvements in labour markets in Eastern Europe.
As unemployment has fallen in Bulgaria and Romania, the number of people applying to work in England’s fields has dropped, with Britain’s impending departure from the European Union now amplifying the trend.
It has led to uncertainty over future immigration rules, while fears of encountering xenophobia and a weakened British currency ― giving less money to send home ― have also deterred arrivals.
Maria Parnic, 37, who has been working for Brook’s operation for seven years, said a hard Brexit would likely lead her and other Eastern Europeans to leave.
“They say ‘I don’t go anymore in England, I go in Italy, I go in Germany’,” she said foreign colleagues and neighbours tell her.
Stephanie Maurel, CEO of recruitment agency Concordia, confirmed it has “really struggled” to find staff, starting from last year.
“(It) has become even more difficult from May this year,” she added, noting the firm usually brought over around 10,000 seasonal workers annually.
The labour squeeze is occurring despite workers being mostly paid at the national living wage of £7.83 ($10.34; 8.84 euros) an hour and some given airline tickets, housing support and productivity bonuses.
The prospect of British fruit pickers replacing them is remote, with the country close to full employment and those in search of jobs mainly in urban areas.
“We had two (British applicants) this year, in six months,” said Maurel, adding there is “absolutely no appetite” for the jobs. “It’s really, really hard work.”
‘No business would invest’
Producers are calling on the government to open the immigration system to more seasonal workers from countries outside the EU, as Germany, Spain, Portugal and Ireland have already done.
Maurel noted that Britain, whose citizens voted to leave the bloc partly to put a brake on European immigration, “is ironically perhaps the only country to recruit only within the (EU).”
Without government intervention, British Summer Fruits is warning the impact on the industry could be devastating.
“Our growers are investing millions of pounds every year in their businesses and actually they don’t know now whether they will have any seasonal staff,” Marston warned.
“No business would invest under those circumstances,” he said, adding a third had already decided to scale back investment, while others were looking at expanding in different countries.
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said it is working closely with the Home Office, which is in charge of immigration policy, “to ensure the labour needs of the agriculture sector are met once we leave the EU”.
“We are determined to get the best deal for the UK in our EU negotiations, not least for our world-leading food and farming industry which is a key part of our economic success.”
But if foreign seasonal workers continue to ebb away, Marston predicts another scenario: Britain turns to imports of strawberries instead.
© Agence France-Presse