Last week, the government called on furloughed workers again to take on second jobs on UK farms, due to concerns that the shortage of farm labourers would have extreme consequences on the agricultural market. There seems to have been confusion surrounding this scenario, with many different reports suggesting that although thousands of people have applied to work on farms, huge numbers have either been rejected from the work, or have turned the work down. So what is actually happening on UK farms? Why is there a shortage of workers? What does this mean for UK farmers and consumers? How do we fix the problem? The answer is not straightforward and placing blame in one direction or another is not constructive. Here, we summarise the conversation from the past few weeks, and aim to look to the future to assess how controlled environment agriculture might be able to bring some stability to this crisis and beyond.
Why is there a shortage of workers due to Covid-19?
Although this issue has been thrust into the spotlight by Covid-19, a shortage of labour on our farms and reliance on migrant workers is not a new problem. Over the past few years, there have been growing worries about cultivating our farm workforce, particularly among conversations about Brexit. Our current system is delicate and easily upset by events out of the ordinary; it is also an issue that will not disappear when the current crisis has passed. It is estimated that only a third of the people who usually work on UK farms over the summer are currently in the country, and these low numbers mean tonnes of fruit and vegetable crops will likely be left unpicked. Restrictions to travel due to Covid-19 mean that the migrant workers who would normally travel to the UK for seasonal work will be unable to contribute to this year’s harvest.