British farmers are to be given the green light to recruit up to 2,500 migrants a year under a new seasonal work scheme.
Non-EU nationals who come to work on fruit and vegetable farms in the UK will be able to stay for six months before returning.
Ministers said the initiative, which will start in spring next year and run until the end of December 2020, will help alleviate labour shortages during peak production periods.
Industry bodies estimate that the agriculture sector relies on a 75,000-strong temporary migrant workforce.
Unveiling the plans, Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “British farmers are vital to the UK’s economy – and the Government will look to support them in any way we can.
“This pilot will ensure farmers have access to the seasonal labour they need to remain productive and profitable during busy times of the year.
“I am committed to having an immigration system that reduces migration to sustainable levels, supports all industry and ensures we welcome those who benefit Britain.”
Environment Secretary Michael Gove said the Government has listened to the “powerful arguments” from farmers about the need for seasonal labour to keep the horticulture industry productive and profitable.
He said: “From lettuce in East Anglia to strawberries in Scotland, we want to make sure that farmers can continue to grow, sell and export more great British food.
“This two-year pilot will ease the workforce pressures faced by farmers during busy times of the year.
“We will review the pilot’s results as we look at how best to support the longer-term needs of industry outside the EU.”
The news was welcomed by Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, who described it as a “major victory”.
She said: “It follows two years of evidence from the NFU, growers and MPs that a shortage of workers has been hampering food production, and is recognition from the Government that British horticulture is a successful, thriving sector which faces some unique challenges but is capable of producing more great, healthy British fruit and vegetables for people to eat.
“Farmers and growers have seen worker availability tighten significantly in recent years, with the shortfall so far this year reaching 10%.
“Growers will take great confidence in knowing that they will have access to workers for the 2019 harvest, during what have been extremely testing and uncertain times for the sector.”
But the executive chair of fruit growers’ body English Apples and Pears, Ali Capper, said: “We need more than 11,500 seasonal workers by 2021 to keep pace with a crop that is set to grow.
“Right now, the pilot permits us to recruit 2,500. This is simply not enough and our growers are already struggling to recruit workers. Some 41% have seen fewer applications for seasonal picking work this year, and 61% believe 2019 will be even worse.
“Whilst this pilot is a step in the right direction, we urge the Government to consider a larger scale solution. Without the right number of seasonal workers, our best-in-class British apples and pears could be left to rot on trees.”
The first seasonal agricultural workers scheme was introduced in response to labour shortages after the Second World War.
Under the last such programme in the UK, fruit and vegetable growers were allowed to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania for up to six months at a time.
The route was closed at the end of 2013 when restrictions on nationals of the two eastern European countries working in Britain ended.
Two scheme operators will run the new pilot, overseeing the placement of workers and ensuring they reach their place of employment and leave the UK at the end of their visa.
The Home Office said it would be a tightly controlled regime, with return rates carefully monitored and provisions in place to close the route if it presents a threat to immigration controls.
Shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said: “This action comes too late for many farmers who have been on their own in dealing with chronic labour shortages since the Tories decided to needlessly scrap the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. Labour will reinstate it.
“A disastrous no deal scenario is now a very real prospect thanks to Theresa May’s shambolic handling of Brexit, putting farmer livelihoods and the UK’s long-term food security at risk.”