The warning comes as the county’s growers predict a shortage of both labour supply and demand could leave local crops either unpicked or not grown this year.
It is anticipated that there could be a shortfall of 1,000 seasonal crop pickers and horticultural workers across the county in 2020.
In the county’s “salad bowl”, that area in the west of Lancashire including Hesketh Bank and Tarleton, where tomatoes, lettuces and other salad crops are grown a-plenty, bosses face testing weeks ahead.
It will be from May 10 when the picking season for outdoor lettuces begins for Len Wright Salads of Tarleton. The salad packers and distributors predict their contract growers might be needing an extra 250 staff.
Director Ian Torley said: “The main issue that we’re facing is that the bulk of our labour in this sector is migrant workers, that’s the truth of it. Barriers are being closed in a number of countries and airlines are cancelling flights, so these people are not going to be able to come to the U.K. to carry out what was their role. A lot departed at the end of last season with a contract - they agreed to come back again, but they can’t honour that contract.”
He said while a lot of local people might now be looking for work due to lay-offs or be on furlough contracts, many did not like the prospect of a 6am start, the work itself is physically testing and the salad season lasts from May to October. There were concerns workers might be likely to leave if their previous jobs became available. He added: “It’s not the most in-demand job.”
Tomato and strawberry harvesting is also due to start within the county and the vegetable picking season extends the demand for labour later in the year.
Nor is staffing the only issue. Ian said: “It’s not all about the labour. We don’t really know what the custom is.”
He said with outlets such as McDonalds closed there is far less demand for items such as Iceberg lettuces. In addition pubs and restaurants are closed so are no longer needing supplies and there is no trade for sandwiches and food on the go.
He said: “People don’t require produce and you can’t grow it not knowing if you are not going to sell it. That’s one of the biggest worries.”
The CLA, which represents landowners, said it “remains concerned about the lack of labour in the agricultural sector which is particularly alarming in the salad and vegetable growing areas of West Lancashire.”
Dorothy Fairburn, the organisation’s Director North, also raised concerns about the impact of the wet winter and spring. She said: “Around 80% of Lancashire is considered rural, and the persistent rain over the autumn and winter has equally affected this area. With 94% of Lancashire’s fruit and vegetables grown in the west of the county, the impacts of standing water on arable farming is detrimental on unharvested and newly planted crops, as it inhibits seed germination, and makes working the land particularly challenging if not impossible. The same impacts are felt by livestock farmers concerned about the welfare of their animals.”
Meanwhile NFU County Adviser Liz Berry said the NFU is in contact with the Government almost daily about the industry’s labour needs. She said: “Growers are extremely concerned about the labour shortage because it will result in crops going unharvested and unsold. Some are scaling back.”
She said the costs of growing a crop which might not be needed were wide ranging - from fertiliser and crop protection to weeding, before harvesting costs impact. Talks are also being held with the Government about the possibility of financial compensation for such unpicked or unsold crops. She said one solution might be to make the system more flexible, so furloughed workers could be transferred from, example, plant nurseries to help pick a harvest.
Nationally lobbying is continuing to have more agricultural and horticultural staff designated as key workers.
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