FRUIT farmers are demanding a shake-up in attitudes to agriculture as the £100-million-a-year industry faces a chronic shortage of workers.

Latest figures show that just one in 400 seasonal workers in the Scottish industry is British, forcing growers to fly as far as Moldova to try and recruit staff by offering free flights.

With the picking season started, Scottish farmers are still facing a huge shortfall leaving the prospect of crops left rotting in fields and price rises in the shops.

Farmers in Angus, Perthshire and Fife that is the home of Scotland's fruit-picking industry believe that perceived difficulties with the British benefits system and job centres helps make the prospect of seasonal work less appealing.

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This is combined with a public belief that fruit picking is too demeaning or too hard, forcing growers to set up recruitment missions in Eastern Europe.

Fruit and vegetables left to rot in fields after fall in farm workers from the EU after Brexit vote

Angus Growers. a group of 18 producers, say that without any interest from British workers, farms now need to recruit from outside the EU to cope but cannot unless the UK Government revive the seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme (SAWS), which was scrapped in 2013 by then Home Secretary Theresa May.

Tim Stockwell, of Barnsmuir Farm near Crail in North East Fife, admits offering free flights in some cases, which can cost up to £250, to encourage staff from Bulgaria to Scotland. He organised a mission to the country to recruit but with the fruit picking season already started they are still about 50 short of the 350 needed for picking strawberries and raspberries this summer.

He believes the benefits system makes potential British workers who are unemployed feel "it's better off to stay at home".

"There is not enough people in Britain looking for these jobs," he said. "We have moved on a generation from the time on farms when people were doing a lot of physical hard work. Those people are not around anymore.

"Also, they don't want short-term work. We had a scheme for school-leavers through job centres once and we had about ten or 12 people. They just don't stick it. They prefer not to do that type of work.

"Twenty years ago we had local people and they would be from the mining towns along the Fife coast, they were hard workers. But then as it has moved on the next generation doesn't want to do that sort of thing."

The last Angus Growers study of seasonal workers found that from a 4112 pickers workforce just 11 were British nationals.

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Farmers believe the pay is attractive, with workers typically given the living wage of £7.83 an hour, which rises to over £11 an hour for overtime during a season that can last between ten and 16 weeks.

Shortage of seasonal migrant workers revealed

William Houston, general manager of Angus Growers, said: "We need 4000 people in Angus and there are 1400 employable unemployed people in the area alone the last time we looked. Some of those unemployed people, no doubt could do those jobs."

He says attempts have been made to use job centres but he said: "They don't encourage us to come in, or for people to come and work on the farms.

"You get the feeling that they don't consider it a proper job. "I don't understand why it's not an attractive proposition. Things need to change."

He indicated that the benefits system may also not be encouraging unemployed people to take on seasonal work.

"This is bigger than just picking. I think society has lost touch with food, and lost touch with life and what life's all about and that we need to grow really good food to be healthy," he said.

"It's about our whole relationship we have got with food, fresh food and local food which has to change. It is about bringing food back to the centre of our culture and celebrating how good Scottish food is.

"When you get a connection with food and life you then start being more prepared to work for it.

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"How many schools, careers teachers encourage youngsters to go into farming? There is a national shortage of agronomists, and schools are not pushing it as a career. Everyone is being pushed into university rather than starting at the bottom and working your way up with practical skills."

Farmers call for action to secure migrant seasonal workforce

He said he thinks people perceive fruit picking to be demeaning. "It is also hard work. You are standing up for eight hours a day in a poly tunnel which is at the moment over 30 degrees. "When it is like this, we are inclined to start at four or five in the morning to get the majority of the work done before it gets too hot. That means it suits the system for people to live in caravans on the farm. Which is another reason not to do it for a lot of UK people.

Recruitment agencies have warned that they cannot secure the number of workers needed by British farmers to pick their fruit and vegetables this year.

Over half of recruitment companies could not find the labour even in the "quiet" first months of this year, the Association of Labour Providers (ALP) says And the National Farmers Union reports that last year there was a 17 per cent drop in seasonal workers coming to the UK. This led to some valuable produce being left to rot in the fields.

Staff at a fruit farm in St Andrews have visited Moldova and Romania to recruit workers

Two-thirds of the Eastern European seasonal worker on British farms come from Romania and Bulgaria.

British farmers warned last year of the difficulties they were facing with recruitment, and according to the ALP report, three-quarters of agriculture and horticulture businesses anticipate shortages in low and unskilled roles in 2018.

Warnings over fruit-picking post Brexit

Mr Stockwell said they went to recruit in Bulgaria to "show that there's a real job on a real farm" because they were aware of cases where bogus farm businesses had been set up that could discourage the potential workforce.

"I am not sure how you encourage someone from, say Glasgow, to come," he said. "They should want to but I am not sure they do want to.

"I am not sure why they wouldn't want to do this sort of work, because people come from abroad, they commit themselves and when they get here are more committed to sticking it out."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Brexit continues to be the biggest threat to our rural economy and retaining access to potential workers via single market membership is essential to meeting the needs of rural businesses.

“The evidence is clear that the UK Government’s position on migration does not work for Scotland's needs, and that is why the Scottish Parliament has recently joined the Scottish Government in calling for new powers to enable a Scotland-specific policy.”