COVID-19

Jobless Brits urged to “pick for Britain” as COVID-19 blocks foreign farmworkers

Stephen Beard Apr 8, 2020
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Dig For Victory, Allotments at Dulwich. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
COVID-19

Jobless Brits urged to “pick for Britain” as COVID-19 blocks foreign farmworkers

Stephen Beard Apr 8, 2020
Dig For Victory, Allotments at Dulwich. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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During World War II, British civilians were urged to contribute to the war effort by going back to the land and growing their own food. The campaign, designed to alleviate food shortages partly caused by Hitler’s U-boat blockade, was called Dig for Victory.

Today, because of the coronavirus, Brits are being urged to do something similar: to pick for Britain.     

The farming industry — backed by the government — is calling on students, the furloughed and the unemployed to help pick the fruit and vegetables that may go to waste if not enough foreign workers turn up for this season’s harvest.

 Around 80,000 migrants are usually needed. Most come from continental Europe, and their numbers had been declining since Brexit because many appear to feel unwelcome and the fall in the value of the pound has, anyway, made working in Britain less rewarding financially. Now it is feared that COVID-19 will make matters much worse. Travel restrictions and the physical ravages of the pandemic are expected to drastically reduce the influx of seasonal workers from abroad, with potentially dire consequences.

“If we can’t get staff from the EU to pick and process our crop, we’re going to be in trouble,” John Bragg, chief operating officer of Bryans Salads Ltd. in the northern town of Tarleton told the BBC. “All this crop in our fields here will be left to rot, and it won’t be able to feed the U.K. nation at this difficult time.”  

It’s many decades since large numbers of Brits harvested the country’s soft fruit and vegetable crop. That’s going to have to change.

“We are starting a campaign to attract people in the U.K., predominantly students, people out of work, to come and help harvest our crops and pack our crops,” said Matt Jarret of Pro-Force, which recruits seasonal farm hands.

The campaign, called Feed the Nation, appealed online for British fruit and vegetable pickers and has so far received more than 18,000 applications. Some, it seems, are motivated by altruism. Many by economic necessity.  

“A lot of people have said their jobs have been impacted by COVID-19, so they’re looking for alternative work,” said Rachel Hubbard of Fruitful Jobs, a farm labor supply firm that has helped organize the campaign. “But there’s a mixture of people, retired through to students and everything in between.”

Yet, 18,000 applicants will not fill the expected shortfall once the main  picking season gets underway in May.

And there are other snags. The farmers need people who’ve had some experience of farm work, can drive a tractor, operate harvesting equipment, and pick produce fast — not as easy as it seems. Then there’s the more delicate question: will modern, comparatively pampered Brits be able to hack it?

“We’re willing to give it a go and train people up. But when we’ve got rain, it’s cold in the morning and you’ve got to come back and it’s a Sunday, I think this is where we’ll struggle. It’s relentless, hard work,” warned Mathew Spanton, an asparagus farmer in Kent.

Since the COVID-19 emergency worsened in Britain, some business and political leaders, including the Queen, have invoked the spirit of the wartime Blitz: the ability to unite and survive in adversity. Whether enough Brits can endure the rigors of farm work may be another test of the nation’s mettle in this crisis. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What do I need to know about tax season this year?

Glad you asked! We have a whole separate FAQ section on that. Some quick hits: The deadline has been extended from April 15 to May 17 for individuals. Also, millions of people received unemployment benefits in 2020 — up to $10,200 of which will now be tax-free for those with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000. And, for those who filed before the American Rescue Plan passed, simply put, you do not need to file an amended return at the moment. Find answers to the rest of your questions here.

How long will it be until the economy is back to normal?

It feels like things are getting better, more and more people getting vaccinated, more businesses opening, but we’re not entirely out of the woods. To illustrate: two recent pieces of news from the Centers for Disease Control. Item 1: The CDC is extending its tenant eviction moratorium to June 30. Item 2: The cruise industry didn’t get what it wanted — restrictions on sailing from U.S. ports will stay in place until November. Very different issues with different stakes, but both point to the fact that the CDC thinks we still have a ways to go before the pandemic is over, according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, who used to work at the CDC and now teaches at Boston College.

How are those COVID relief payments affecting consumers?

Payments started going out within days of President Joe Biden signing the American Rescue Plan, and that’s been a big shot in the arm for consumers, said John Leer at Morning Consult, which polls Americans every day. “Consumer confidence is really on a tear. They are growing more confident at a faster rate than they have following the prior two stimulus packages.” Leer said this time around the checks are bigger and they’re getting out faster. Now, rising confidence is likely to spark more consumer spending. But Lisa Rowan at Forbes Advisor said it’s not clear how much or how fast.

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