Farmers producing apples have been hit hard by labour shortages © David Burton/Alamy

Fruit and vegetables are being left to rot on British farms because of a shortage of labour, according to the National Farmers’ Union, which is calling on the government to implement a seasonal agricultural workers scheme to fix the problem.

Ali Capper, whose fruit farm on the border between Herefordshire and Worcestershire sells Gala apples to supermarkets, said the business had 20 per cent fewer workers than usual in September.

“If the fruit becomes over-ripe, the skin gets tacky and greasy,” said Ms Capper, who is chair of the NFU’s horticulture team. “We ended up having to send 100 bins of Gala apples for juice. Those apples should have been class 1 apples on supermarket shelves. To a farmer, sending class 1 apples for juice is a waste.”

She said apples used for juice fetched one-fifth of the price of those sold to supermarkets for eating.

The NFU’s monthly labour survey showed a 29 per cent shortfall in seasonal workers for horticulture businesses in September, up from 17 per cent in May.

The UK farming industry is heavily dependent on pickers from the EU — notably eastern Europe — for seasonal work. Low unemployment rates and the seasonal nature of farm work makes it difficult to attract domestic pickers, the sector argues.

At the same time, the UK has also become less attractive to seasonal workers mostly from Romania and Bulgaria because of the fall in the value of sterling against the euro since Britain voted last year in a referendum to leave the EU.

Minette Batters, deputy chair of the NFU, said the UK urgently needed to re-introduce a seasonal agriculture workers scheme similar to the one that existed between 1945 and 2013.

She added most EU countries operate such arrangements, which typically extend well beyond the regional bloc to include other nations, such as Ukraine, Thailand and Morocco.

“Waste hasn’t been catastrophic this year but we don’t want this to get to a seismic scale [next year] — we want the government to act,” said Ms Batters. “Farms are having to move people around, people are having to work longer hours, which is putting strain on already strained businesses.”

Ms Capper said farmers were reluctant to speak publicly about the fruit and vegetables they were leaving to rot in fields, for fear that supermarket groups would think they were not running their businesses effectively.

She cited the case of a soft fruit farmer in Scotland who grows 350 tons of blueberries but had to leave between 50 to 100 tons to waste because of a labour shortage, which cost him £500,000.

A Kent soft fruit farmer was unable to find enough labour to pick 100 tons of raspberries, out of a total of 2,000 tons, which cost him £700,000, said Ms Capper, adding that broccoli, cauliflower and pumpkins were also rotting in fields.

Beverly Dixon, director of human resources at G’s, one of the UK’s largest growers of vegetables, said labour trends did not bode well for next summer.

“We had double the number of no-shows and double the number of early leavers this summer, which added to our labour bill,” she added. “Usually we have a waiting list of 700 to 800 people in July. This year we had zero.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that access to overseas migrant labour was a policy area led by the Home Office.

It added: “We recognise securing a strong agricultural workforce is crucial as we develop a new approach to farming outside the EU. The government has commissioned advice from the migration advisory committee to better understand reliance on EU migrant workers across the wider economy and we will work closely with our food and farming industry to consider their specific needs.”

According to Defra, there were 67,000 seasonal workers in 2015, while farming industry figures put the number at about 80,000.

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