22nd April 2020
Last autumn fruit was left unpicked and rotting on trees of East Kent`s orchards because of a shortage of labour. That was before Covid 19 had been heard of and was as a result of foreign labour hitherto imported to do the work but deterred by Brexit and by the threat of tough immigration laws.
This year the pandemic is added to the equation. With borders locked down it is still harder to recruit fruit and vegetable pickers from overseas as land routes are shut. That is why some farms are resorting to charter flights to bring in agricultural workers from Romania.
There is, though a huge pool of able-bodied men and women who, because of Covid 19, are unable to go to work as usual but who need and would like to earn a living. With asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, salad vegetables and then apples to be harvested there is a great opportunity, promoted through the “Pick for Britain” campaign, to create work and get the job done. The Kent Land Army site also offers access to employment and there are agents ready, willing and able to recruit for farmers who need staff prepared to get out in the fresh air and get picking.
Clearly there are issues – travel to farms is one and social distancing is another - to be resolved and I have also been told that some agents are reluctant to hire unknown and unskilled labour. If that is so, then I – and Kent`s farmers - want to hear about it because while not everyone is suited to the task we cannot afford to turn down willing and able workers. Nobody should pretend that harvesting is anything other than work. It is a couple of years – literally – since I last assisted with a harvest myself and I think that my back is still aching! For someone younger and fitter, however, there is a fair wage, sometimes topped up by bonuses for volume picked, to be earned. As a nation we have always been good at finding ways to get things done in a crisis and a crisis on the land is what we are facing now unless we get our food producers – the farmers – the hired help that they need. The message is clear: if you can, get “Picking for Britain”.
While writing, it`s now a month into lockdown. Four weeks ago many of us checked on elderly neighbours to make sure that they were okay. People of `a certain age` can be fiercely independent and do not want to `bother people` and the response is often “I`m okay for the moment, thanks”. Community spirit and response has been excellent but now may be the time to look around again and to make sure that nobody is slipping through the net as a result of isolation or understandable pride.
Finally, at the risk of generating still more work for a team that is working from home, please remember that we have a network of contacts (up to and including Ministerial ones of course) that can try to offer advice and help. Our Birchington office is taking calls from 10am on 01843-848588 from Monday to Friday and Suzy and I are working throughout the weekends as well.