by Susan van de Ven on 6 December, 2017
Last summer I talked to Tim Elbourn about the impact of Brexit on his fruit picking workforce at Cam Valley Orchards in Meldreth. The business is a premier producer of Victoria Plums, as well as pears and apples.
Recently, on a freezing winter’s day, I went back to ask how the harvest had gone and what the business is doing to adapt to a changing landscape.
This year’s crop had come early, well before the Polish workforce was scheduled to arrive on pre-booked (and more affordable) flights. A number of local English pickers were hired to help start the plum harvest in mid-August, joined later by agency Romanian and Bulgarian pickers.
Across the fruit picking industry, EU pickers are 10% down on pre-Referendum days, and this was reflected in Meldreth too. More English pickers are needed.
Nicky Elbourn explained that although the English pickers often don’t stay long – sometimes even only a few days – they require extra paperwork relating to work-based pensions, now compulsory for all employers. This isn’t required for the casual EU workers who simply travel in and out of the country for the harvest. So there was more admin work this season around the increased number of short-term English pickers.
(All EU workers, resident in the UK or not, pay National Insurance contributions. EU workers who live permanently in the UK must be registered for work-based pensions, but it’s the casual workforce that supports the picking season.)
The plum season is shorter and earlier than the apple season, so getting a workforce in place for the critical time period is the critical. It is expected that workforce recruitment will be a bit harder as Brexit comes into force, and meeting strict time windows is risky.
Meanwhile, the apple picking season is longer and apples offer a more diverse business opportunity – apple juice has become a key part of the business. I watched Tim move small bottles into a machine for filling up, while I perched next to a wooden crate full of bottle tops.
So the plan is to place increasing emphasis on apple juice – great news as this is a wonderful product. But for lovers of the Victoria Plum, while it will continue to be grown for the Farm Shop and local outlets, its diminishing presence will help mark out the Brexit history divide.