Fears of food shortages unless 40,000 people volunteer to pick crops

Fears of food shortages unless an extra 40,000 people volunteer to pick crops for the £15-an-hour Land Army within weeks – amid warnings produce from abroad is also set to dry up because of travel bans, fewer flights and rising freight costs

  • More than 30,000 people have asked to join new ‘Land Army’ to ‘pick for Britain’  
  • But only a third of volunteers to ‘feed the nation’ have ever worked on a farm
  • Confusion about how they will travel to farms and share accommodation

The UK faces food shortages unless 70,000 Britons ‘do their duty’ by harvesting the country’s fruit and vegetables for £15-an-hour with the global pandemic also disrupting the flow of imported goods, MailOnline can reveal today.

More than 30,000 people have asked to join a new ‘Land Army’ to ‘pick for Britain’ and ‘feed the nation’ – but it is still 40,000 short of what is needed by early May and only a third of volunteers have ever worked on a farm. 

There is also growing confusion about how they will travel to farms, share accommodation and work safely in fields while maintaining social distancing because Public Health England is yet to complete its official guidance.

The Treasury last night stepped in to speed up the process of gathering volunteers by deciding farmers and food plants hit with staff shortages will be allowed to recruit furloughed workers after pressure from the National Farmers’ Union. 

It means they will be able to keep 80 per cent of their pay up to £2,500-a-month, paid for by the taxpayer, while also earning up to £15 an hour, or £350-a-week picking fruit and vegetables.

Agricultural workers place raspberry canes in a polytunnel at Winterwood Farm in Maidenhead yesterday

Workers box and label strawberries at Winterwood Farm in Maidenhead yesterday

Today the NFU’s vice chairman Tom Bradshaw issued a call to arms for Britons to ‘step up and do their bit’ – warning that without them there could be food shortages.

He told MailOnline: ‘Allowing furloughed workers to take second jobs opens up a large pool of British people who have the opportunity to get into the fields from early May.

‘It gives us a chance to get to that 70,000 – but of course we are all nervous that we won’t get there. This is a call to arms for to do their bit for their country – we need people help society by picking the fruit and vegetables crucial to our diet.

In a stark warning about the consequences if the plan fails, he added: ‘If we don’t get these fruit and vegetables picked people will have less choice in the supermarkets and fewer fruit and vegetables on the shelves’

Mr Bradshaw said the global nature of coronavirus means that farmers all over the world are struggling to get seasonal workers harvesting their produce.

An agricultural worker checks the growth of blueberries at Winterwood Farm in Maidenhead yesterday

People stand in an aisle of empty shelves in a Sainsbury’s supermarket in London on March 19

He added that travel bans, fewer international flights, the rising cost of road freight and lorry drivers becoming ill or self-isolating is making it far harder to import.

He said: ‘International supply chains are becoming more unstable – but we have the fruit and vegetables we need here. But unless we get our British crop picked we may have some shortages of food’.

The race is now on to find 70,000 laid-off workers willing to harvest fruit and veg by early may, with experts admitting they are ‘nervous’ about whether it is possible, leaving tonnes of food rotting in British fields.

40,000 people still need to be found by the end of the month and Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, believes a small proportion will end up on farms, warning: ‘Once people see the reality of what’s involved, it’s not for everybody’.

Travel restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus means that just ten per cent of the usual number of Eastern European pickers who travel to the UK are ready for work.

The ‘Land Army’ scheme is being led by Concordia, a charity which provides seasonal labour for farms.

Tape marking out 2twometre sections on the floor to implement social distancing measures at a Tesco store in Peterborough on March 26

Concordia says almost 90 per cent of applicants are British citizens – and half have either been furloughed or out of work completely because of coronavirus.

But only one in three of the 30,000 have worked on farms before – and just 2,000 are currently deemed ready to start work by early May by completing a short interview process.

Stephanie Maurel, the chief executive of Concordia, said pickers earn an average of £350 a week for around 40 hours of work.

A Morrisons supermarket delivery van near Woodcote in Berkshire on a clear day yesterday

The least they will be paid is the national minimum wage of £8.72 per hour – but the faster workers could be paid up to £15 per hour depending on how much they pick.

The working day will begin between 5am and 6am, finishing in the early afternoon to avoid physical work in the hottest part of the day,

Traditional around four out of five seasonal workers live on the farms, usually in shared caravans with two other pickers paying £53-a-week in rent.

Farmers till their fields as preparations continue for the season ahead at Brotton in Redcar and Cleveland on Monday

But social distancing means that a caravan per person or family may be required – while Ms Maurel told The Times farms would require newly arriving pickers to go into self-isolation for seven days before starting work to avoid infecting other workers with coronavirus. 

A new website where farmers and potential workers will be matched launches next week, days before the start of Britain’s harvest season. 

The British Growers Association says around 6,000 pickers are needed from mid-April to pick asparagus, and the same again to pick salads and lettuce.

By May at least 30,000 people will be needed to pick strawberries and at least 10,000 more to pick soft fruits such as raspberries. Later in the summer another 10,000 will be needed to pick apples and pears.

Next month tens of thousands will be needed cauliflowers, cucumbers and spring greens and other common vegetables like onions.

Farmers and food plants hit with staff shortages will be allowed to recruit furloughed workers from other businesses to ‘feed the nation’.

The move comes in response to warnings of chaos in some sectors and fears crops will be left to rot in the fields.

Thousands of businesses, from retailers to pubs, have put their staff on furlough, which means the taxpayer will pay them 80 per cent of their wage.

Originally, this payment was denied to the company if these workers went on to find a second job to bring in cash.

However, the Treasury has updated its guidance to say: ‘You may undertake other employment while your current employer has placed you on furlough, and this will not affect the grant that they can claim under the scheme.’

The net effect is that people on furlough could receive 80 per cent of their pay from their main employer while collecting a second wage for fruit picking.

Importantly, these people must be able to return to work for their main employer as and when required.

Fury as Asda and Sainsbury’s stock up on imported POLISH beef while British farmers struggle in coronavirus crisis – despite shoppers REJECTING it on shelves

Supermarkets including Asda and Sainsbury’s are stocking up on imported Polish beef while British farmers struggle through the coronavirus pandemic.

UK beef farmers told the chains that the move is ‘unacceptable’, adding: ‘Please do not play a part in killing British agriculture. Remember, once it’s gone, it’s gone.’

One agricultural law firm tweeted a picture of reduced Polish beef on the shelves, telling Sainsbury’s: ‘Looks like no one wants your c**p Polish beef! We wonder why?’

A Derbyshire-based agricultural law firm tweeted a picture of reduced Polish beef on the shelves, telling Sainsbury’s: ‘Looks like no one wants your c**p Polish beef! We wonder why?’

Nigel Davis Solicitors, of Ashbourne, Derbyshire, added: ‘Try selling good home grown British beef – you can’t beat it. Although we’d always recommend people to buy it from a proper butcher and not somewhere that thought to import this!’

Simon Hoare, the Conservative MP for North Dorset, also tweeted: ‘Milk is being poured away by some in North Dorset and I’m told Sainsbury’s has Polish milk and beef. In the words of (Trade Secretary) Liz Truss, THAT. IS. A. DIS. GRACE!’ 

And Somerset farmer James Windslade said: ‘Polish beef being imported by the supermarkets – come on supermarkets and Government, support British farmers.’ 

It comes as Tesco revealed this morning that ‘significant panic-buying’ in recent weeks cleared its supply chain of certain items as sales jumped by 30 per cent. 

The National Beef Association, which represents UK beef farmers, has written to bosses at Sainsbury’s and Asda asking why they have bought meat from Poland.

It said in a letter: ‘It is unacceptable to us as an organisation, and, we suspect, to the British population, that you would choose to import beef from abroad at this time.

People look at empty shelves in a Sainsbury’s in Walthamstow, East London, on March 20

‘Currently, there are no definitive answers on how Covid-19 may or may not be transmitted – are you able to guarantee the safety of imported food?

‘Can you confirm and evidence that the source farms in Poland comply with the same rigorous conditions that British farms must adhere to in order to be able to supply your stores? 

‘Unfortunately for you, this gaffe has come at a time when the country seems to be pulling together in a flush of patriotic fervour; supplying imported mince is perceived as out of tune with current thinking, and people have plenty of time to spread the news.

‘At a later date, when the crisis is over and the luxury of choice is handed back to the public, perhaps they will remember which supermarkets backed Britain.’

The move was also slammed by the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, which criticised the ABP Food Group for bringing in Polish beef to meet shortages. 

Simon Hoare, the Conservative MP for North Dorset, also tweeted: ‘Milk is being poured away by some in North Dorset and I’m told Sainsbury’s has Polish milk and beef’

ICSA beef chairman Edmund Graham said: ‘Why have they shown contempt for Irish farmers whose hard work has made billionaires out of their owners?

‘This is a new low at a time when everyone else in the country is working together.’

A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: ‘We have a long history of supporting British suppliers and we remain committed to sourcing British as much as we possibly can. 

‘We have experienced exceptionally high demand for certain cuts of meat in the last few weeks so we have temporarily introduced additional lines for our customers to choose from. 

‘We will go back to offering our usual range as soon as possible, while balancing our commitment to meeting demand and helping to feed the nation.’

An Asda spokesman has been contacted for comment by MailOnline today. 

Somerset-based  farmer James Windslade tweeted: ‘Polish beef being imported by the supermarkets – come on supermarkets and Government, support British farmers’

And National Farmers’ Union chief livestock adviser John Royle said: ‘Our meat supply chains have not been immune to the disruption seen in retail and food supply chains in recent weeks and many will be aware that there has been some Polish beef and poultry meat stocked by some UK retailers.

‘We have challenged this apparent change in sourcing policy. We are aware of the overwhelming customer demand for beef mince and poultry meat that outstripped the processors’ capacity to meet demand – in particular for mince. 

‘The retailers involved have indicated that this is a one off, and haven’t moved away from their standard sourcing policies nor their commitment to British.

‘British farmers are prepared and enthusiastic to meet any increased retail demand and are committed to meet the needs of consumers. 

‘We’re urging retailers and processors to build resilience now to manage any future disruptive buying behaviour and help improve availability of product through this difficult time.’ 

In January last year, a Polish abattoir was accused of handling sick cows, with the meat then imported to 11 EU countries excluding Britain.

Poland identified 9.5 tonnes of beef from the plant, which was later closed down, and 2.5 tonnes of this was exported.

Secret filming by broadcaster Polish TVN 24 revealed how cows that were too sick to stand being dragged from lorries into the slaughterhouse.

Meanwhile bosses at Tesco said today that surging demand resulted in the sale of six million tins of baked beans, 3.3 million tins of tomatoes and 3.6 million packs of toilet roll each week as stockpiling increased.

It said 10 per cent of shoppers bought 30 per cent of products while it also reported stockpiling was most prevalent in the South East.

It added that the company has recruited 45,000 more staff members in the past two weeks in a bid to cope with soaring demand.

Numerous workers have been recruited as drivers and pickers to help expand its delivery business.

‘It is unacceptable that you would choose to import beef from abroad at this time’: Letter from National Beef Association to supermarkets

From: Neil Shand (National Beef Association trustee)

To: Roger Burnley (Asda chief executive) and Mike Coupe (Sainsbury’s chief executive)

Date: April 6, 2020

Dear Mr Coupe,

Firstly, may we congratulate your organisation and its staff for your part in feeding our country during these unprecedented times. The food supply chain has been thrown into turmoil, and the problems you are facing with both supply and demand and logistics at this time are ones that you and our members have in common.

The National Beef Association was very concerned to note the Polish mince fiasco, widely reported on social media last week. It is unacceptable to us as an organisation, and, we suspect, to the British population, that you would choose to import beef from abroad at this time. Currently, there are no definitive answers on how COVID19 may or may not be transmitted – are you able to guarantee the safety of imported food? Can you confirm and evidence that the source farms in Poland comply with the same rigorous conditions that British farms must adhere to in order to be able to supply your stores? That source farms have adequate welfare standards, including a definitive record of medicines administered to all animals, and that withdrawal periods for those medicines have been observed? Unfortunately for you, this gaffe has come at a time when the country seems to be pulling together in a flush of patriotic fervour; supplying imported mince is perceived as out of tune with current thinking, and people have plenty of time to spread the news. At a later date, when the crisis is over and the luxury of choice is handed back to the public, perhaps they will remember which supermarkets backed Britain.

Recent Kantar data indicates that previous to March 23rd, 20% of all evening meals were consumed in eateries outside the home. Post lockdown, this 20% volume has been added to shopping lists and the money spent in supermarkets across the UK, which means more potential profit for your company. It would be satisfying to think that you would share this tiny glimmer of light in our new and dark world with both your customers and your suppliers, but instead it appears that special offers have been withdrawn, prices have been hiked on certain goods, and producers have been subject to a squeeze on farm gate prices through processing suppliers. Whilst we appreciate that your own staff deserve monetary reward for the extra effort they have made, we would expect that our supermarkets would support British agriculture at a time when they too are working extra hard. There are other key sector workers standing shoulder to shoulder in this fight, and no one is suggesting they work harder but get paid less.

The point of this missive is not to denigrate the excellent job the supermarkets are currently doing. You rely on us, we rely on you. We are all in uncharted waters, and finding a way forward is imperative. Our symbiotic relationship requires some adaptation to the current situation so we can continue to provide you with an excellent choice of home-sourced produce, and we would like to make a few suggestions. As you have obviously discovered, there is a deficit of mince in the system. This is largely due to carcass imbalance which has been created by closure of the restaurant sector. It would help to balance the supply chain if you targeted your special offers on different carcass areas – steaks or roasting joints for example, along with appropriate recipe cards which utilise these. Perhaps now is a great time to bring back the tradition of a family Sunday roast, whatever the meat of choice may be. And while we, the producers, would applaud an increase in your staff wages, we ask that you don’t take cash out of our pockets to fund them. Perhaps the extra 20% increase in food sales that will surely come your way after the closure of the leisure sector will help you fund a wage increase.

Many, many businesses will not survive this crisis. When the immediate threat is over, and people begin to poke their heads above the parapet, the world that we left at the end of February will not be the same as the one that emerges. The size of the worldwide recession, which will echo through the economy for some years to come, should not be underestimated. People will need jobs, and agriculture offers a chance to contribute to our country’s recovery by increasing the supply of the home-grown food it needs, and consequently decreasing reliance on other countries to supply imports.

The busiest organisations are currently, rather ironically, the health sector, supermarkets and undertakers. Please do not play a part in killing British agriculture. Remember, once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Yours sincerely,

Neil Shand,

Trustee

National Beef Association

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