FARMERS have had to leave thousands of tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables to rot in fields because of the fall in the number of workers coming to Scotland from the EU since the UK voted for Brexit.

One farmer in Fife said he dumped enough vegetables to “feed 15,000 people for a year” because there “wasn’t enough hands” to harvest it. Another farmer in Angus said the region requires 4,000 seasonal workers a year and there simply aren’t enough unemployed locals to pick the fruit he grows.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) has surveyed Scottish farmers about the “threats facing your businesses as a result of possible labour shortages” which it says have been “compounded by negotiations to leave the EU”.

The results of the survey – which are expected to make difficult reading for UK Government rural affairs minister Michael Gove – will be announced on Thursday by NFU Scotland President Andrew McCornick at the union’s AGM.

It is anticipated that farmers will demand a return of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (SAWS) – closed by the UK Government in 2013 – which granted permits for thousands of workers from outside the EU to come to the UK to assist with harvest before returning home.

The NFU hopes an influx of those seasonal workers would fill a workforce gap which was created after a 20 per cent fall in the number of EU workers in some parts of Scotland last year.

McCornick said: “Access to workers remains a key priority, particularly for some very successful parts of our industry that are heavily dependent on non-UK labour.

“This year, there has been a shortage of between 10 and 20 percent of seasonal workers coming from the EU. To tackle that it is essential that we have a UK Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in place for 2018 with work permits for up to 20,000 workers from outside the EU.”

NFU Scotland’s Horticulture Committee Chairman, James Porter, who grows soft fruit in Carnoustie, said there is “hardly a punnet of Scottish strawberries or a head of broccoli that isn’t picked by non-UK workers”. He has called on Gove to introduce a pilot seasonal scheme in Scotland.

He said: “For a major soft fruit area like Angus, the importance of seasonal workers cannot be underestimated. There are only 1,400 long term unemployed in Angus, yet Angus Soft Fruits – the group that I supply with soft fruit – needs a seasonal workforce of 4,000 to pick crops. With the massive growth that we have seen in our soft fruit and veg sectors in Scotland it is simply impossible for that labour to be sourced locally.

“Immigration is a political hot potato, but it is important to note that these seasonal workers would have next to no impact on the UK’s net immigration figures as, seasonal workers would all return home.

“If the political climate in England makes it difficult to introduce a seasonal workers scheme there, I am certain a pilot would be well received in Scotland.”

The SNP’s Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins MP said the UK Government’s “lack of action” to help farmers and other food and drink producers “will mean higher prices and more waste”.

He added: “It’s increasingly apparent that taking us out of the EU will impact across a range of sectors affecting each and every one of us – this includes the food and drink sector where farmers and other businesses rely on workers from across the EU who harvest the food that we eat.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, which Michael Gove runs, said: “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.”


James Orr produces broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots and parsnips at Milton of Blebo Farm outside St Andrews. He must employ at least 30 people in the peak months of August to November but said he had “15 per cent fewer people than I would have liked” last year.

He said: “We simply could not harvest everything and as a result we left produce in the field to rot. We worked out there was enough broccoli to feed 15,000 people for a year, in terms of their annual consumption. Had we had enough hands to pick it we could certainly have sold it. We supply just over 1,000 tonnes of broccoli but we ended up coming up short on that contract. We reckon we lost somewhere between £30,000 and £50,000.”

Orr is now making “difficult decisions” about how much he can produce this year. “We have to decide whether we have the confidence to put the crop in the ground not knowing whether we’re going to have enough hands to harvest it,” he said.

Orr is also involved with farmers’ co-operative East of Scotland Growers which has a membership responsible for producing between 20 and 25 per cent of the UK’s broccoli requirement. “We’re quite big players but Brexit means that is now at risk,” Orr added. “It would effectively be imported if we can’t produce it.”