The Tayside and Fife soft fruit industry has grown steadily at around 5% per annum for decades with major investment put into polytunnels and other infrastructure.
However, Brexit uncertainty means most fruit farmers will be “taking their foot off the accelerator” this coming year with efforts already being made to change cropping mix or to make their set-up more resistant to potentially fewer workers.
Stewart Arbuckle of Star Inn farm, Invergowrie, said the fruit picking element was now “completely dependent” on the 100 or so migrant workers they employ.
However, after 55 years of growing fruit the farm would not be expanding next year and, having “got through by the skin of their teeth” this year, he knew of larger neighbouring farms who had lost 20-30% of their fruit crop during certain weeks of the summer heatwave because it ripened so fast and there were simply not enough workers to pick it.
“We’ve heard of two or three of the big growers round about us that have been 20-30% short of labour over the summer which means they’ve essentially had to pick their crop they want to walk away from and just leave fruit to rot on the bushes,” he said.
“Because we are smaller we are a bit more flexible. We were just lucky get through by the skin of our teeth. But it will be trickier next year I think.
“I think Britain seems to be a slightly less attractive place for European labour to come and work compared to what it used to be for various reasons including currency rate and Brexit.
“That looks like its set to carry on. I suppose if Brexit does happen next year that will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If there’s no free movement of labour then we are kind of knackered.
“I think there needs to be an answer to that and we don’t seem to be getting one at the moment.”
William Houstoun, general manager at Angus Growers Ltd, said that overall he thought the rotting crop over the whole season this year might have been closer to 5-10%.
“There were weeks back in June when it was very hot and ripening very quickly with a shortage of labour,” he said. “It’s fair to say some farmers were losing 20% in some weeks.”
The labour shortage meant farms had to pay higher wages to those who did work.
However, the only thing that’s “saved” farmers this year, he added, was the long hot summer that would see the season continue for a further five or six weeks.