A few Sundays ago, I finally got back on farm for the first time since lockdown. It was such a treat, and though I’ve enjoyed the accessibility that comes with this new virtual way of working, there’s some things that can’t be replaced.
Now, I have to admit that my visit was for pleasure, not work, and with the lovely weather we enjoyed in July, we decided to go strawberry picking at a local farm – something that I used to do regularly with my mother as a child, but haven’t done for years.
When we arrived, we were kindly ushered towards the car park field where I was slightly shocked to see so many cars. The farm had only been open for business for about half an hour – surely there weren’t that many people wanting to go fruit picking on a Sunday morning?
But boy, was I wrong. As we made our way into the strawberry fields with our PYO basket in tow, I was absolutely flabbergasted to see so many people – of all ages – getting hands on with soft fruit picking.
It’s fair to say that attracting and retaining staff has long been a challenge faced by the farming industry. Particularly for the fruit and vegetable sector the lack of interest in a career in the field has meant many farms and businesses have relied heavily on foreign labour to fill the opportunities – the future of which seems to be in jeopardy while the creases of Brexit negotiations continue to be ironed out.
If you cast your minds back to the start of lockdown, many key bodies across UK ag issued pleas for furloughed workers to consider making the most of their unexpected time at home by coming to help out on a UK farm.
According to one report in on the BBC, Totaljobs saw an 83% increase in applications for agricultural roles during April as a result of coronavirus, but the problem still remains that around 70,000 workers are needed to fill these seasonal roles.
So where are we going wrong?
If being paid to do a job is unattractive but paying to do it yourself is, we must be marketing farming wrong.
I understand there’s somewhat an element of novelty when it comes to heading out to pick strawberries with your family on a sunny Sunday morning, but if the sense of pleasure is there, I can’t see what is it about fruit and vegetable picking as a career that suddenly removes that enjoyment.
This is one of those challenges that we talk about year after year, and there seems to be some hurdle we just can’t get over – so what do we do?
I don’t think this a problem the industry will resolve easily, but there is one simple step all arable farmers can take.
With the NFU recently launching its 2020 #YourHarvest campaign, it’s a great time for the industry to collaborate to showcase just exactly what goes on at arable farms up and down the country at this particularly busy time of year, so I hope we can all get behind the movement where possible.
On a more positive note, after such a turbulent few months, and in light of the topic mentioned in my column this month, it was really pleasing to see that the NFU-commissioned Farmer Favourability Survey revealed that 75% of people voiced a positive view of UK farming – the highest figure since OnePoll started carrying out the annual survey in 2012.
So, though we’re not quite there yet, we are making some great progress which no doubt helps to boost morale in a difficult time.
Originally hailing from Devon, Charlotte Cunningham is now based in Warwicks and when not busy filling the pages of CPM, can be found in the garden or exploring the countryside with two crazy spaniels in tow. firstname.lastname@example.org @charcunningham