Fruit farmers in the UK face an uncertain future with the new National Living Wage (NLW) coming into force this April.
As a labour intensive sector that relies on seasonal workers to help hand pick the harvest, a rise of 50 pence per hour to every worker aged over 25 could have serious implications for those who rely on this vital source of labour.
With profit margins already tight, Ben Compton from the rural team of Bruton Knowles can see some farmers getting into a bit of a jam this fruit picking season and is advising they review their current workforce structure to see if there is any room for manoeuvre.
Ben said: “The vast majority of fruit farmers pay their workforce quite well already however a rise of around 7.5 per cent to their operating costs could see many struggle.
“There are of course a number of options open to the farmers such as employing less people which could impact getting the harvest in on time, charge more and run the risk of not being able to sell their produce or make a smaller profit or worse a loss.
“If fruit farmers charge more for their produce supermarkets will probably divert to cheaper imports, again an option no one would really want to happen.
“Most of these are all pretty unpalatable for a sector that has made great strides in recent years and contributes a significant amount to the UK economy, so it would be a shame to see it take a step back as a result of the NLW.
“It’s also worth noting that any employer that fails to pay its workers the new NLW could face prosecution as well as possible claims from aggrieved workers.”
The potential of the UK leaving the EU could, according to Ben Compton, restrict the movement of seasonal workers, particularly those from Eastern Europe who have for years provided a vital source of labour for fruit farmers.
Should the referendum point towards an exit, Ben is advising fruit farmers to start putting in place sufficient plans to ensure the harvest can be picked once the full impact of a UK exit has taken its toll.
Ben added: “The referendum later in the year will be keenly monitored by those in the fruit sector. It has always relied on a proportion of workers from Europe and a restriction on the movement of labour could play havoc on their ability to get the harvest in.
“The next few seasons are going to be testing for many fruit farmers.
“We represent many famers and agricultural businesses and are on hand to provide advice on what the best options are.”