Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 12:47 UK

Farmers fear strawberry shortage

By Mark Broad
BBC News, Kent

Many strawberries may not be picked this year

The strawberry fields of Langdon Manor Farm in rural Kent are bursting with ripe, juicy fruit.

But there is one problem. There are not enough people to pick them.

With the picking season in the UK getting under way this week, soft fruit farmers across the country are warning that their crop is already rotting in the fields and that supplies to supermarkets may run short.

The owner of the farm, Alistair Brook, has traditionally relied on a large seasonal workforce from countries such as Poland and Lithuania to help pick his fruit.

But this year, many of the workers have stayed at home.

"If things don't improve, we'll not be able to harvest all our fruit, and if that continues across the whole economy, there will be food shortages," says Mr Brook.

The industry body, British Summer Fruit, believes that the problem is getting so bad that supermarkets will be forced to import strawberries from California.

Weakening pound

At the root of the problem is the declining value of the pound and the improving economic prospects in countries where many of the workers have traditionally come from.

Patryk Ullrich, strawberry picker
Polish strawberry picker Patryk Ullrich says the work is less attractive

Patryk Ullrich from Poland has been working in the strawberry tunnels of Kent for two years, but says that the incentives are becoming increasingly less alluring.

"At home our economy is getting better and better, the minimum wage has gone up and we have started building more," he says.

"Many of my friends have decided to return to Poland because the wages are better over there."

Since World War II, the government has awarded permits to seasonal workers, under the agreement that they return home after a certain number of months.

This year, the government has allowed 16,250 workers from Bulgaria and Romania through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Scheme (Saws).

Workers from these two countries are allowed to work for a maximum of six months in any seasonal agricultural job.

In previous years, farmers have topped up their Saws quota with workers from EU countries like Poland and Lithuania.

This year, however, that supply of labour has all but dried up.

But farmers say that there are plenty of willing workers: Bulgarians and Romanians see the government's programme as a fantastic opportunity to cash in on the plentiful supply of work, but cannot get a Saws permit.

Lucrative work

One worker who has been granted a work permit is Marina Georgieva from Bulgaria.

Crouching under a polytunnel at Langdon Manor Farm tossing strawberries into a punnet, she reflects on how lucky she feels to be working in the UK.

Strawberry pickers earn an average basic wage of 5.53 an hour
They can make about 9 an hour depending on how quickly they pick
Strawberries get from the field to the supermarket shelf in 24 hours
The British strawberry season lasts from May until September

"The amount I earn here on the farm in a week would take me four weeks to earn in Bulgaria," she says.

"At the end of this season, after I've bought some clothes, I hope to go home with 3,000 for six months' work."

But while the potential workforce appears to be at hand, the government does not believe that farmers should rely on cheaper migrant workers.

"We are phasing out low-skilled migration from outside the EU, because we think businesses should hire those close to home first," says a spokesperson for the Border and Immigration Agency.

"Some people have told us our immigration reforms are too draconian, but we think they're right for Britain."

'Act before it's too late'

The farming industry thinks that if the government waits for the problem to get worse before acting, it could get out of control.

"The government seem intent on waiting for strawberries to rot in the field before they act," says Philip Hudson, chief horticultural adviser to the National Farmers' Union.

"Their policy amounts to waiting for the patient to die before prescribing any medicine."

As the loads of strawberries stack up on the tractors in Kent, farmer Alistair Brook can only reflect on the difficult position he finds himself in.

"I could raise the prices of my fruit to pay for wage increases to get in more workers in, but that would mean that my customers would have to pay more.

"My main customer has a GDP bigger than Wales and I'm just a small farmer in Kent, so it's very difficult for me to pass on any price rises to them."

As the sun goes down on another day of picking at Langdon Manor Farm, it seems that the fate of this summer's strawberries lies in the hands of workers in European countries who don't seem keen to come and pick them.

Hear more about this story on the PM programme on Radio 4 on Thursday, 29 May between 1700 and 1800 BST.

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