Bumper British strawberry crop may rot as EU pickers stay away

First, the good news: Britain’s love affair with the strawberry remains undimmed. And thanks to the good weather earlier in the spring, this year’s crop arrived some two weeks ahead of schedule.

But while there appears to be sufficient numbers of workers to pick the berries at the start of this potentially bumper season, whether they will be here at its end is becoming a key concern for the nation’s fruit farmers.

With growers across Europe competing for labour, eastern European workers – who comprise the vast majority of Britain’s fruit pickers – now find themselves in the driving seat. Farms have started poaching pickers from each other. “What we are seeing for the first time is that workers are coming over and moving on to another farm shortly after arriving,” said Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, one of the largest providers of labour. “If we bring over 100 workers for a farm and 10 go elsewhere, that’s going to create a lot of shortages.”

This year Germany has introduced new tax incentives for foreign workers which has led to fears that many Romanians may turn their back on British farms, having provided the majority of its fruit pickers in recent years. “We’ve always competed with Germany but the UK has been more attractive – we have table-top, off-the-ground production. In Germany a lot of picking is done on your knees,” said Nicholas Marston, chairman of trade body British Summer Fruits. “A lot of the crop is not covered in Germany. If it rains, you don’t get any work so in the past the UK has been seen as a more attractive place to come. But now the competition for people right across Europe is hotting up.”