Agricultural leaders have expressed concern about the lack of available manpower due to the coronavirus, and one of them called for the recruitment of a “ground army” of people who were left without work by the crisis.
Restrictions put in place due to the virus are likely to prevent many of the 60,000 seasonal workers who come to the UK each year to work on farms from traveling, and the supply of domestic workers is also expected to decline.
Farmers in many parts of the country are already struggling after months of severe flooding, and the supply of seasonal workers was already in doubt due to Brexit.
The CountryLand and Business Association (CLA), which represents more than 30,000 rural landowners and businesses, estimates that the worker shortage could reach 80,000 at a crucial time and leave crops spoiled in the fields.
The greatest need for workers is still a few months off, but the calving season peaks in the spring, the main harvests take place in the summer a few weeks before soft fruit pickers are needed and then salad and other vegetables . Many farmers have already started planting or harvesting key crops.
"We must recognize that the supply of labor from farmers is in jeopardy," said CLA President Mark Bridgeman. “A shortage of 80,000 workers is something we've never seen before. That is why we are asking for an army of land employees to support farmers in feeding the country. "
He said that workers in other sectors affected by the coronavirus crisis could be quickly retrained to perform agricultural jobs. "We need urgent assistance from the government to help home workers and advertise jobs," he said. “Time is of the essence. If we don't find these key workers, companies will go bankrupt. "
The National Union of Farmers also called on the government to act urgently. "Producers who depend on seasonal workers to pick, pack and sort our fruits and vegetables are extremely concerned about their ability to recruit workers this year," said a spokesperson.
“The industry is already working hard to promote roles on farms locally, recognizing that this could help those who are unfortunately out of work. We urge the government to address this situation as soon as possible. "
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced on Friday a new £ 6 million fund for farmers after the wet winter, and the relaxation of some rules about what they can grow.
Environment Secretary GeorgeEustice said: “I have seen first-hand how devastating the recent floods have been for individuals and communities, which is why we have expanded the Agricultural Recovery Fund to help those affected recover.
“I am also aware that the spread of the coronavirus is causing other difficulties for the agricultural community. We are exploring all options to ensure that the right support is available in the coming weeks and months. "
Demand from supermarkets and veg boxes has exploded as the coronavirus crisis intensifies, but demand from restaurants has collapsed. This has left many farmers struggling to find new supply routes and adapt to change. Spring is often when farm income is lowest, even as demand for labor is growing.
The average age of farmers in the UK is 59, putting many at greater risk of developing severe symptoms if they contract the virus.
The Landworkers'Alliance, a small union representing more than 1,000 small and medium-sized farmers and land workers across the UK, called on the government to support small farmers through small business relief, even though they typically don't. pay fees. The alliance also wants a “dig for victory” program to encourage market gardeners and local community groups.
Their campaigns coordinator, Jyoti Fernandes, said: “This crisis highlights the vulnerability of our globalized food system, which in the coming years will only worsen if we do not invest in building a local, diverse and resilient food system. We demand immediate and meaningful government action to ensure that everyone has access to healthy and affordable food. "
Ashley Wheeler, a salad and vegetable producer in Devon, said: "What we need is help to coordinate the distribution of food that farmers and producers have to local communities, especially those who are vulnerable and isolated."