Covid and Brexit have caused havoc for horticultural businesses

31st March 2021 | Rural

James Barnes, Chair of the Horticultural Trades Association discusses the effects of the seasonal worker shortage

The Clewer Initiative

The Clewer Initiative spoke to James Barnes, the chair of the Horticultural Trades Association about how a shortage of seasonal workers is affecting the UK’s horticultural businesses.

Can you tell us more about the Horticultural Trades Association?

The Horticultural Trades Association is the trade body for ornamental horticultural businesses including garden centres, growers and landscapers. We support our members with practical advice, learning and development, networking and peer-support and by acting as a voice into government and in the media on the issues that impact the sector.

What have been the main challenges faced by horticultural businesses post Brexit?

The UK’s departure from the EU has presented several challenges to horticultural businesses, including the introduction of costly and time-consuming plant health regulations and inspections; restrictions around plant imports and exports which threaten long-standing trading relationships with the continent; specific issues for our Northern Irish members (and those who sell goods to NI) and, we predict, problems in sourcing seasonal labour in some areas of the sector.

How many seasonal workers usually work within the sector and what proportion come from overseas?

It is estimated some 9,500 seasonal workers normally take roles across ornamental plant and flower growing, of whom around 5,000 to 7,000 are seasonal workers recruited from overseas.

How have horticultural businesses found workers for this picking season?

One of our members, Varfell Farms, has seen a massive drop in the number of available pickers. As the world’s largest daffodil grower, producing half a billion stems each year at Longrock, Penzance, it would usually need around 700 pickers. This year because of the Covid pandemic and the end of free movement following Brexit, it only had 400 flower pickers. Alex Newey, the business owner, tried to recruit local pickers to plug the gap but in the end he had no choice but to let many daffodils rot in the fields. He told me: "We can’t harvest them, we don’t have enough pickers to pick them. We’re losing hundreds of thousands of pounds.”

What are your fears for the coming months?

As the year progresses and other seasonal horticultural products come through, we predict there will be even further impact. The shortage will affect seedlings and bedding plants as well as cut flowers.

What would you like the Government to do to help horticultural businesses?

The HTA is seeking a meeting with the Immigration Minister to discuss the issue of seasonal workers for ornamental horticulture. The objective of this, together with other lobbying on the subject, is to see ornamental horticulture included in the seasonal agricultural workers pilot scheme (which enables workers employed through an approved agency to temporarily travel to and work in the UK without the need to fulfil a points-based visa scheme) and increase the number of places available on that scheme.

As businesses within the horticultural sector, and others who rely on seasonal workers, struggle to find employees, it is more important than ever that they stay alert to criminal gangs exploiting the situation. The Farm Work Welfare App is designed to help farmer, growers and processors navigate this tricky situation. It can be downloaded free from the Google Play and Apple App Store.

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