BRITAIN'S farms need 70,000 non-UK workers on the ground next year – 10,000 of them in Scotland – or there will be a huge drop in food production.

This week, as the horticulture sector wound down from its 2020 season, Scottish fruit and vegetable growers called on the UK Government to commit to a full seasonal workers scheme that will allow for that level of recruitment – whether from EU or non-EU countries – and warned that without such a scheme in place, as many as 40% of Scottish growers would simply stop producing food.

While the UK fruit'n'veg sector muddled through the problems of 2020, with some help from local recruits furloughed from their real jobs, the fact is there were still many experienced EU workers made it onto UK farms. The real crunch will come on the stroke of midnight December 31, when freedom of movement of people from the EU will formally come to an end.

Ahead of the 2020 season, NFU Scotland and the UK farming unions provided ample evidence that those 70,000 seasonal staff were essential to maintain production, and in answer to those statistics, the UK government introduced a Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme allowing 10,000 permits from workers from outside the EU to work in the UK in 2020. It is understood that the government now intends to review that pilot scheme, with a view to deciding how, or indeed if, it will be replaced to cope with the end of EU free movement.

As far as NFU Scotland is concerned, the only sensible outcome of that review would be a fully functional Seasonal Workers Scheme, matched to the industry's well-documented requirements.

Chair of the union’s specialist crops committee, James Porter, said: “The industry’s response during the pandemic has shown how vital a reliable, experienced overseas workforce, with a high level of returnees, is to these sectors. While we were successful in recruiting a larger number of local workers this year, the vast majority of the workforce were still sourced from outwith the UK. For many years, growers have been unable to fill vacancies from the domestic workforce, and this will continue to be the case as horticulture – an innovative, high-value sector of UK agriculture – invests in its future expansion.

“More than 40% of NFUS horticultural members who responded to our most recent survey stated that they would cease activity altogether if they could not recruit workers from outside the UK," warned Mr Porter.

“That is why the UK Government must arrive quickly at a decision which genuinely recognises the clear need for Scottish and UK horticultural operators to recruit workers from outside the UK through a sector-specific, seasonal scheme. The lead-in time for recruiting seasonal labour is around nine months and it is the view of NFUS that the UK Government’s lack of clarity on the sector’s ability to recruit workers from outside the UK from January 2021 onwards is untenable.

“Without urgent clarity on the UK Government’s intentions for the future of the Seasonal Workers Scheme, planting and investment decisions cannot be taken, and the sector could face severe productivity and financial challenges in the 2021 season and beyond."