Scottish fruit farmers recruit thousands of locals to save harvest

Scottish fruit farmers have solved a recruitment crisis that could have resulted in this year’s harvest of strawberries, blueberries and raspberries being destroyed.

Several thousand people, including students and restaurant and bar workers laid off because of the coronavirus outbreak, have taken low-paid fruit-picking jobs in Tayside and Fife normally done by seasonal workers from Bulgaria and Romania.

Farmers across the UK have said fruit and vegetable harvests are threatened by lockdown measures that have prevented tens of thousands of workers from flying in from eastern Europe for the picking season.

Recruitment agencies have proposed chartering special flights to bring in workers from the continent, but in Tayside most vacancies have been filled by locals after an urgent appeal from farmers to fill 3,200 vacancies.

James Porter, a fruit farmer who helps run Angus Growers, an organisation with members in Angus, Perthshire and Fife, said most of the 19 farms that took part in the appeal had filled all their vacancies.

“We’ve had a big response,” he said. “It’s very encouraging and it gives me a bit of hope we might still be harvesting our crops.” Many were students whose university courses had stopped and who normally had summer jobs.

Porter said Scottish farms produced about 25% of the UK’s soft fruit each year. Angus Growers members produced 12,400 tons of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries last year.

Picking for the first crops would start in two weeks, Porter said, and picking for berries grown in heated tunnels had already begun. Picking would accelerate in May and peak from June onwards.

He said fruit picking was a skilled and demanding job, requiring speed, dexterity and knowledge about which fruit to pick. Migrant workers had been doing this work for 10 to 15 years, he said, and were extremely fast.

New recruits also needed to learn how to work safely with machinery and equipment, and maintain physical distancing while picking to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus.

He said it would take time and training for recruits to develop the skills his normal workforce had, and it was unclear whether the people who had signed up for this season’s harvest would turn up or stay on if they found the job too demanding.

Local recruits may also leave if their old jobs return and universities resume teaching once the lockdown is relaxed, he added. “A lot of things have to line up and work this summer. We really are in uncharted territory.”

Similar problems confronted asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower andbrussels sprout farmers this summer, he said.

“This is a big chunk of people’s healthy eating in the summer months, particularly in conditions like this [during the lockdown] where people aren’t necessarily having a healthy lifestyle, having lots of exercise and so on,” he said. “It’s all the more important to make sure we secure the healthy ingredients they need.”

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