The Scottish fruit industry’s wooing of Romanian and Bulgarian pickers looks like it has paid off for this season.
Last year’s dearth of workers resulted in fruit rotting and galvanised growers to bypass agents and take recruitment back into their own hands.
As the year’s first Scottish soft fruit comes on stream, growers are optimistic that enough workers have committed to travel to meet peak demand in June, although they are worried that the rising price of flights could still have an impact.
Fife growers Tim and Rob Stockwell, who employ 400 pickers at Barnsmuir Farm and started strawberry production this week, made the trip to Eastern Europe to promote the farm. They gave presentations, advertised in the press, put up posters and offered incentives to attract the best workers.
Tim said: “Pickers aren’t always trusting of agents in their own country and there are still rogue agents who will overcharge them, so if they can see a genuine job they’re more like to come.
“They don’t want to pick strawberries at ground level so we’ve moved to having 80% of the crop grown on tables which is a major attraction, and our accommodation is as good as anywhere. We’ve also opened an on-farm shop selling things from their own country.”
Around 30-50% of the Stockwells’ labour force are returnees and, while many workers have pledged to come this season, there is still some trepidation.
“We’ve already had a lot cancelled and we’ve replaced them with others, as many of them apply for four or five jobs and then just don’t turn up, it happens quite a lot,” said Tim.
“The key thing is getting the right people who want to work as wages are up almost 5% to £8.21 an hour. They need to pick enough otherwise costs can be higher than produce they pick.”
Ross Mitchell, of Castleton Soft Fruit near Laurencekirk, also promoted his business in Europe.
Strawberry picking started at Castleton three weeks ago and Ross is “optimistic” he will get the 600 workers he needs at peak season.
“We’re recruiting all the time and applications are looking good but all the growers in the UK are competing with the Dutch, Belgians and Germans for the same small pool of workers,” he said.
“We just need to see if they all turn up.”
Scottish growers have been allocated a share of 2,500 non-EU migrant workers employed under the UK Government’s pilot Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.
The Stockwells have been allocated 15 Ukrainian employees and Castleton is scheduled to get 25.