A lack of seasonal laborers, first caused by Brexit and then by the invasion of Ukraine, has cost farmers hundreds of thousands of pounds in crops. It is pushing food inflation as high as 20% at the farm gate.
Farmers say this year's harvest has been hit by a shortfall in the overall number of seasonal worker visas granted by the Home Office, delays in processing those visas and a collapse in the number of Ukrainian workers coming to the UK after the Russian invasion.
Last year more than 60% of workers on seasonal visas were from Ukraine and 8% from Russia. That number has greatly reduced as adult Ukrainian men are unable to leave the country.
As a consequence of the labor squeeze, individual farmers have already left crops worth hundreds of thousands of pounds in the ground, and there are concerns about industry's ability to reap a full harvest during the current berry season, and the forthcoming apple and pear season.
The UK seasonal workforce has been falling since 2018 and the introduction of the post-Brexit seasonal worker visa regime. It is one of the only routes for low-skill, low-pay workers to enter the UK from abroad. Previously most seasonal workers came from the European Union without restriction.
The government plans to reduce the number of seasonal worker visas available next year before phasing them out altogether in 2024, with a view to domestic workers and automation, including fruit picking robots, filling the gap.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) warns the plan is unrealistic and risks a contraction of the horticulture sector just as the government is proposing an expansion as part of its recently published food strategy.