How soon can robots take over from seasonal workers in harvesting soft fruit in Kent? There is undoubtedly a shortage of seasonal workers this year. Farmer Hulme has recently appeared on local SE news complaining that some of the cherry crop may have to rot in the fields because of shortage of labour for the harvest.
He is a prize-winning farmer, who won the 2019 top cherry prize from Produce of Kent. The shortage of pickers this year was predictable once travel restrictions made it difficult for East Europeans to come back to the UK. But on the SE news, this fruit farmer complained mainly about the paperwork now required post-Brexit.
Labour required for fruit-farming in Kent (probably the same farm as in the SE news this week) was described by Edward Hulme in 2015 to a researcher from the University of Kent:
“My brother employs over 200 people, just because fruit is highly labour intensive. Not all year, he has 50 full… there are 50 full-time members of staff. Male, female, so that’s 50 families that we have to find a pay-check for every week. And then in the summer, from June through to… really October, my brother will bring in another 150 people, mostly Eastern European, because English people are too lazy, to do that kind of work. It’s just… doesn’t suit them anymore, unfortunately…. But we still have 50 acres of hops, which is our… Do you know what hops are?”
As I had experience of hop-picking in my teenage years, let’s start this harvesting story there. When I was 14, a friend and I seized the opportunity to earn our first pay in the Guinness hop-fields near Bodiam. We would cycle over there from our village through the lanes at dawn.
Some of the pickers who lived in the cabins near the fields would already be there, standing six to a bin, three on each side of what was a large metre deep piece of sacking hung from horizontal poles at waist height.
Young men on tractors would drive through the rows of tall ripe hop plants, rake them down into a trailer, roar down the field to the bins and toss them over to us. We would take a vine, pull off the ripe hops and to drop them into the bins, casting the stripped vines behind us for another tractor team to pick up.
Whenever our bin was full, we could call for collection from the supervisors: they scooped up the picked hops in a bushel basket and noted it for the daily record.
We were to be paid, at the end of the day, at the rate of one shilling per bushel, which is roughly equivalent to a £1 in 2021 money. The most I managed to earn was about 14 shillings a day (8 hours), which is far below the £4.35 per hour minimum wage for under-18s allowed in the UK today.
But it was the first money I ever earned. It did not seem like exploitation. It was a rather enjoyable way of passing two weeks of the school holidays. I think we were the only local teenagers picking, in our part of the fields anyway.
The majority of the pickers were families from the East End of London who had been coming for years to stay in those cabins. A few were gypsies who came with their caravans. Those experienced pickers achieved a bushel pick-rate far higher than our teenage efforts.
A few years later, my brother was also employed on a hop-farm, but this time the process was more automated.
The vines were brought into a large barn and hooked up to a line that went through a stripping process, with the hops and leaves falling together, then shuffled along into a wet revolving drum that separated off some of the leaves, and dropped the mix of hops and small leaves on to a conveyor belt, where hand-pickers had to pick out the remaining leaves before the hops were dropped into sacks and hauled upwards to the adjoining oast house where they were dried overnight by an oil powered furnace below the drying floor.
My brother worked two seasons at that farm because he made himself known as the one who could unjam the machinery if it had stopped.
Hop-farming has virtually disappeared from the Weald today. The big breweries started using bio-chemicals instead, distilled, reputedly, by a German firm. The few farmers who have started growing hops again are doing so for the new craft-beer industry, which still requires real hops.
These hop-picking recollections have some bearing on today’s harvesting story as it shows some of the same themes: migrant labour, low pay, and then mechanisation.
One of the aims of Brexit is to reduce immigration into the UK. But the farming system developed over the past two decades has grown dependent on migrant labour from Eastern Europe, as in that quote from 2015 about a Kent fruit farm. So how is the fruit being harvested in 2021?
The Government plan can be found online. 30,000 seasonal workers are to be brought in by four recruiting firms, each allowed 6,000 visas, thus providing 24,000 of the seasonal migrant workers. How the other 6,000 visas are being allocated is unclear. The deadline for tendering to be one of these firms was 19th January 2021.
Farmers are not allowed to recruit migrants directly but have to recruit through these approved firms, who have to have a good track-record in this type of recruiting. The criteria for gaining this approval includes safeguards against modern slavery and exploitatively low pay.
So why is a Kent cherry farmer now complaining about shortage of pickers ? Either the four approved firms are not doing their work well, or the migrants prefer to go elsewhere. The latter is the most likely, as the paperwork now required to work in the UK is too much hassle.
In the EU, on 1st July, travel with a covid-free pass will be allowed across the borders of all 27 countries. Pickers seeking harvest work can more easily do so in one of these countries than in the UK. So will Kent farmers move away from fruit-farming, and UK supermarkets rely more on fruit imported from the EU?
The Government policy, after a failed attempt last year to get more Britons into harvest work, appears to be relying on automation. Several ingenious machines feature in internet advertisements, for instance the Polybell for harvesting broccoli, and the Dogtooth for fruit-picking.
Although a Dogtooth picks at half the rate of a human hand-picker, one worker can manage six Dogtooth machines. Machines can operate for longer hours, some for 24 hours a day. And they do not need the farmer’s attention to housing, travel, health, pay records etc of human workers. They doubtless have some mechanical or electronic maintenance requirements, but these are jobs more attractive to young Britons, and probably higher paid than hand-picking.
Mechanisation is moving into automation with robotics. There are even drones that glide among the fruit and spot those that are ripe for picking.
So how quickly can British farming adapt and invest in these machines? Some of them have to be imported anyway from the EU: for example the strawberry picking robot invented and made in Leuven, Belgium by Octinion. Arranging to finance such automation is a big decision for any farmer. One US firm, Harvest CROO, has a fleet to hire out at harvest time, but this probably means high prices at peak times.
We are in for a period for transition. Shortages from wasted harvest or more imports? Price rises? Farmers clamouring for more seasonal workers or for finance to move quickly towards automation?
Me – I am going to the allotment to pick strawberries for supper.