Berry growers warn crops could be left to rot due to worker shortage

A worker shortage could result in berries being left to rot.
A worker shortage could result in berries being left to rot.
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SCOTLAND’S berry growers have warned that a lack of foreign workers means this year’s fruit is being left rotting in fields – despite bumper crops and strong demand from retailers.

At least three major soft fruit growers have reported to farming leaders that they have seen produce go to waste on plants and bushes in the last seven days as a shortage of good seasonal workers began to bite.

Soft fruit is in high demand in the sunshine summer but there are too few pickers to handle the work.

The industry is faced with bumper crops of rapidly ripening fruit and “unprecedented” demand from retailers, but some producers say they are now short of up to 40-50 pickers and unable to cope with the bumper harvest.

The British Summer Fruits (BSF) trade body said its members were 10-15 per cent short of labour and expect to be more than 30 per cent short by the autumn as the UK government drags its feet on a seasonal agricultural workers scheme.

NFU Scotland’s horticulture committee chairman, James Porter, said an appeal for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme had now gone all the way to the prime minister but he claimed Mrs May had “put the brakes” on such a scheme going forward.

Mr Porter said warned of further difficulties down the line, when the soft fruit season tails off and harvesting moves to other crops. He said: “We don’t know where to go next with the argument. Everyone else agrees it’s necessary but it’s all about timing, and the biggest danger will be when it gets to autumn, the workers who are here will have had enough and be ready to go home.

“That’s when we expect the situation to become really acute with vegetable crops.”

Meg Marshall of Peter Marshall Fruit at Alyth said her company had to leave 15 tonnes of strawberries and five tonnes of raspberries to rot in the fields because of a combination of too few pickers and an 
unusually long period of sunshine which meant the fruit ripened quickly.

Ms Marshall said: “The fruit is ripening so fast, by the time the pickers get to the end of a drill they need to start all over again.

“Lots of growers are in this situation – we’re all short and panicking. We need to be able to employ workers from the Ukraine and Morocco and even Thailand like other EU countries do.”

William Houston, general manager of Arbroath-based Angus Soft Fruits, said fields were not getting a “last pick” done because workers are scarce. He added he was concerned about the levels of stress in the industry, which he said reminded him of working with livestock farmers during the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

He said: “We are all aware of farmer suicides and I’m not saying we’re necessarily at the same level here, but people are going quiet and the stresses are pretty enormous.”

Meanwhile, supermarket chain Aldi has announced it is buying more than 90 tonnes of “wonky” Scottish strawberries in order to reduce food waste and support local 
producers.

newsen@edinburghnews.com