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. 

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