Prime Minister Theresa May has been urged to stop “dithering” and introduce a temporary workers scheme as berry farms in Courier Country face an exodus of staff.
With Brexit looming, the number of EU nationals coming to Scotland to pick fruit during the summer is plummeting and farms have been left with unpicked berries rotting on the vines.
Now farmers and politicians are calling for a seasonal agricultural scheme to be put in place, which will allow people from the EU and beyond to come to Scotland on a temporary permit to work.
Martin Kennedy, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union Scotland, said it is the first time he has ever seen fruit in Courier Country left unpicked.
“We now have fruit rotting in the ground which is unacceptable,” he said.
“Brexit has triggered it, there is a lack of confidence in overseas workers about if they will be able to stay and the exchange rate is down which is also having an impact.”
Mr Kennedy said if urgent action is not taken farmers will not plant fruit next year, which will damage the local and national economy.
“It seems to be down to political dithering, it is up to the prime minister now,” he added.
“It’s a big investment so if farmers don’t think the crop will be harvested they won’t want to put it in.”
Mr Kennedy visited Peter Marshall Farms at West Jordanstone, near Alyth, yesterday, along with members of the Scottish Affairs Committee. They witnessed the crisis first-hand after publishing a report on the issue.
Jennifer Telfer, a partner of the farm, and fiancé Rowan Marshall are looking for ways to cut labour, including using more table-top planters instead of planting in the ground.
We have had about 50 tonnes of fruit that we couldn’t pick,” she said.
“This is a very personal thing for us because it’s our lives, not just a job.
“There’s a crisis now – We need a seasonal deal and if we don’t we can’t make a plan for the future.
“We used to get 3,000 people apply to us, now we get a quarter of that.
“People say hire locals but it’s not as easy as that because the locals don’t want to do the job.”
Perth and North Perthshire MP Pete Wishart, chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, said the UK Government needs to be convinced that as workers who come on a seasonal permit would only be here on a temporary basis, they will not impact immigration figures and will not be able to claim benefits.
“There is a warm response to the idea but there is still a perception that what we are trying to do will impact general immigration policy but it has nothing to do with that,” he said.
But with Westminster preparing for summer recess and no finalised Brexit plan, there are fears no scheme will be in place before the end of this season.
Banff and Buchan Conservative MP David Duguid, who also sits on the committee, said: “The immigration minister is very positive about moving in the direction we would like her to but it’s not the only industry in the country.
“If we do something for agriculture why wouldn’t we do it for aviation or car manufacturing?
“We have to balance everything but I’m confident that we are moving in the right direction.”