UK growers of flowers and ornamental plants have warned that millions of blooms will go unharvested this year after the multibillion pound sector was not included in a scheme to admit overseas farm workers after Brexit.
Alex Newey, owner of Varfell Farms in Cornwall, the UK’s largest daffodil grower, said he was deciding which parts of this year’s crop to leave to rot after a recruitment shortfall. He currently has 400 pickers at work on the daffodil harvest, compared with his normal 750.
The vast majority of picking has for several decades been carried out by overseas workers, mostly from eastern Europe. EU citizens with settled or pre-settled status — giving them a right to stay in the UK — can work on British farms, but Newey said there were not enough such migrants, while only food growers can use the government’s seasonal workers pilot scheme to bring in further overseas labour.
“The scheme has to be adapted to include ornamental horticulture or big swaths of ornamental farming will go to waste,” said Newey.
Millions of bunches of flowers will be left unpicked at Varfell, he added, though it is too early to say exactly how many. The farm normally harvests 500m stems from its 3,500 acres each year.
Fruit and vegetable growers have welcomed the expansion of the seasonal workers pilot scheme to enable 30,000 labourers to travel temporarily to UK farms in 2021 after Brexit ended free movement of people with the EU. Workers using the scheme do not have to fulfil points-based UK visa criteria now used for most migrants.
But unlike a previous version, the current seasonal scheme is aimed at food and does not include growers of ornamental plants. Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, said the need for food security had been key to securing its expansion from the government.
“We will continue to make the case for ornamental growers — we believe they make a significant contribution to the economy . . . and people’s wellbeing,” he added.
UK households spent £1.9bn on cut flowers in 2017 and £7.5bn on garden goods, according to Oxford Economics, a consultancy, while further plants were exported.
Ministers have encouraged farms to recruit UK workers for seasonal picking, but such efforts have borne little fruit as local job seekers balk at tough physical labour that is temporary and often based in remote rural areas.
Adam Taylor, director at Taylors Bulbs in Lincolnshire, said his company would normally harvest up to 40m daffodil stems but this year’s figure would be less than 10m after it downgraded plans on realising it would not be able to recruit enough workers.
He will have fewer than 100 pickers, compared with more than 200 in previous years. His business sells bulbs as well as blooms, but Taylor said harvesting daffodil bulbs alone would not be viable in the long term.
“It’s a very intensive crop to grow,” he added. “You need the bulb harvest and the flower harvest to contribute, to make it an economic decision to grow daffodils.”
Daffodil growers are feeling the effects of the farmworker shortage already because their crop grows early in the year.
But James Barnes, chair of the Horticultural Trades Association, said that about 9,500 seasonal workers normally take roles across ornamental plant and flower growing, of whom 5,000 to 7,000 were previously casual hires from overseas.
“As the year progresses and as other seasonal horticultural products come through, there will be a further impact,” he added. The shortage would affect seedlings and bedding plants as well as cut flowers, said Barnes.
Newey said the issue was also affecting mixed produce farmers who had previously moved workers between food and ornamental crops, but could no longer do so under the terms of the seasonal scheme.
Like food growers, flower producers face added pressure from powerful UK supermarkets driving down prices: bunches of daffodils are currently on sale for as little as £1. When recruiting overseas workers, meanwhile, they must compete with other European countries that do not require visas.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “This year’s extended seasonal workers pilot will operate in support of the edible horticulture sector to ensure our food security — but we are continuing to monitor the needs of other sectors, including ornamentals, to ensure they are met.” It added it would work with the industry to promote local recruitment and automation.
More than 4m EU citizens have settled or pre-settled status but there is little data on how many intend to do seasonal farm work. The government has previously estimated 20,000.
Newey said: “We need more pickers or we’ve got to find something else to farm . . . We’re not going to put millions of pounds’ worth of bulbs in the ground just to watch them flower and wither.”