Farmers are warning they will still need thousands of foreign workers for the UK harvest next year despite a campaign to attract domestic workers.
National Farmers Union (NFU) figures, given exclusively to the BBC, reveal only 11% of seasonal workers in the 2020 season were UK residents.
That is despite a high profile Pick for Britain campaign during the summer.
The NFU now wants government assurances about labour for next year after the Brexit transition period ends.
The Horticulture Seasonal Worker Survey covered 244 growers, recruiting more than 30,000 people – equating to nearly half the workforce. The NFU said the worker response was promising, but was not enough to sustain the industry long term.
Vegetable farmer Martin Haines employs 150 seasonal workers in the Cotswolds, picking pumpkins, beans and broccoli.
This year, facing the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid-19, he tried to find more local workers. However he only managed to recruit five British pickers – and they left before the end of the season to prepare for going to university.
“We’re quite happy to have British workers,” Mr Haines said. “We will invest in their training to be able to do the job, but they just don’t come and apply for the jobs. A lot of the work we do is on bonus – it’s above minimum wage, so I’m not sure what we could do to attract more people.”
Campaigns like the government-backed Pick For Britain saw a huge initial interest. But John Hardman, from Hops Labour Solutions, one of the biggest recruiters, said of around 30,000 applications they had from Britons, only 4% took up jobs and around 1% stayed past the initial six weeks.
Mr Hardman said many domestic workers had an unrealistic ‘Darling Buds of May’ view of working on the land. “It’s hard physical labour. There is very little appetite in the domestic labour market for seasonal agricultural work because of the nature of the work.
“To be honest, EU citizens and those keen to work here are far more productive than the domestic labour force.”
Mr Hardman added that, at this time of year, HOPS would normally be starting the process of finding overseas workers for next summer, but it is now halting recruitment until it knows more about the government’s plans.
“It’s like selling off an empty shelf. We are suspending recruiting people from Romania and Bulgaria for 2021 purely based on uncertainty,” Mr Hardman said.
NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: “We are at a critical time in recruitment for many growers. As freedom of movement ends on December 31, those growers of iconic British daffodils, asparagus, and soft fruits still don’t know where they will recruit experienced workers from.”
The Seasonal Workers Pilot, which allows recruitment of a limited number of temporary migrants for specific seasonal roles in the horticultural sector, was extended from 2,500 to 10,000. But the industry wants assurances over whether it will run next year.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said: “Seasonal workers are essential to bring in the harvest every year, which is why we are continuing to work hard to ensure our farmers and growers have the support and workforce they need.
“Now the UK has left the EU, Defra is working closely with the Home Office to ensure that there is a long term strategy for the food and farming workforce as part of future immigration policy.”