North West Leicestershire Farm 'Inundated' With Job Applicants - But Coronavirus Will Still Create Problems

  Posted: 27.04.20 at 15:17 by By Graham Hill

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A local farm says it has been ‘inundated’ with applications for summer jobs from UK residents - but still believes this year will be a ‘minefield’ due to the problems caused by Coronavirus.

The fruit, veg and salad industry requires more than 90,000 workers every year for seasonal harvest farm work. 

In this country during the lockdown, there will be a shortage due to Eastern European labour who have filled these seasonal positions for many years facing travel restrictions.

And the Government said on Sunday that furloughed workers should consider picking fruit this summer BBC: Furloughed workers urged to become fruit pickers

Busby Partners Ltd, based in Chilcote, has had its business promoted via the British Summer Fruits website to advertise for people - as the virus restrictions mean that their regular Eastern European workforce will not be able to fly in to take up the jobs.

The advertisement ran three weeks too soon for the strawberry industry as they do not need more people until May 20.

And the advert has now removed as the farm has had too many applicants.

Phillip Busby, a director at Manor Farm, says the response nationally has been encouraging.

But he adds that there are still problems to overcome as he aims to maintain his supply of strawberries to the UK supermarket.

The farm - six miles from Ashby - has been operating in its current form since 1992 and has always provided a reliable supply of food to the retail industry.

But Phillip says bringing in a new crop of workers could still mean some difficulties in getting food to the shelves.

The farm is on extreme lockdown - with only one employee allowed to leave and buy food for others for the first three weeks of the restrictions.

Now they are now allowing small groups of four to go in on farm pickups to buy food only.
That is because an outbreak of Coronavirus could halt production completely - something no farm can allow to happen.
Phillip told Ashby Nub News: “We’ve been inundated with applications, which is kind of pleasing.

“How many of them are suitable I don’t really know. New recruits have to be trained.

“That takes two weeks for a new picker to get their technique, picking quality and speed.

“Some find it easy while others find it difficult. Issue is that it is very difficult to know until you try.

“We’re going to do online interviews in the first week in May.

“We’ve got 70 people who came here in February,  all our staff are Eastern European, Bulgarian and Romanian at the moment.

“They’re here now and they’ve been helping with our planting. But my May group isn’t able to travel at the moment.

“They’re all able and willing to come, but they’re stuck with restrictions in their home countries over getting flights.

“There are some flights coming in from Romania now. They’ve been chartered by growers to bring people in now.

“But we don’t need anybody until about May 20. And we don’t know what the travel restrictions are going to be then.

“All the people here have been coming for years, they know the job. It’s called unskilled work, but it’s actually a skilled job. You’re picking something to a specification that the retailer needs.

“For somebody to become a good picker, it takes two weeks, we need maximum output per person and that’s the risk we’ll get.

“We’ll have a lot of people who are not trained and slower, but I still have to pay them a living wage no matter how many kg’s they pick per hour. 

“That can get very expensive and it’s an absolute minefield.

“All of the applications have been from this country, and my daughter is working on them now.

“We can’t cope with this many new people on our own and my daughter has handed her noticing from an organic farm shop business in Stow on Wolds, and she’s going to start running this for me.

"We haven’t got the infrastructure to handle large numbers of new pickers.

“Every year 90 per cent of the people who come from Europe have been here before, so know the job, quality and routine of our business.

“So we usually have 20 to 25 new people every year. We are now looking for 70, I’m not sure we can handle it.

“We have an arable farm to run anyway besides this. So we had to call in our resources.”
 Phillip says the farm's current circumstances are all down to Coronavirus.
He added: “This is nothing to do with Brexit. This is all down to travel restrictions caused by Coronavirus, we’re only small growers, and 90 per cent of our fantastic workers come back year after year.

“We’ve been doing this since the early 90s, and people used to come over here as young people and they’re now adults. Now their kids are coming over.

“We’re a nice farm, nice people and we look after all our staff. They get very good accommodation.

“We always give them the same static van they were in the previous year as they generally leave all their personal things here over winter when the units are closed up.

“We pay them well, we are fair honest and decent. That’s why people come back, we’ve got a waiting list in Romania and Bulgaria. People want to come here.

“UK workers generally want  full-time jobs, not seasonal ones and we can’t afford to retrain people all year around.

“That’s the problem with UK nationals, we train them up but then they would want a full-time job after that, which is perfectly understandable.

“But it’s not sustainable. With European labour, we’re paying around six times what they can earn at home.

“They come here, are paid the living wage or above, then they go home and do part-time work there during the winter.”

Phillip described the number of workers he typically has at the farm during the year.

He added: “My maximum workforce here will be 220. And I have 70 people here now.

“We start off in February and go all the way through to mid November by then everybody has gone.

“Normally, the guys who work here, 25 or 30 of them would fly home for Easter. But they couldn’t this year.
“For those two weeks I will need 40 per cent more people to do the same job because they’re not up to speed.

“Everything has to be right.

“We had a pick your own farm in the 70s and 80s, but in 1992 we decided to supply the retailers and that’s when we went into it in a larger scale.”

Phillip also described the extraordinary measures Manor Farm is taking to keep Coronavirus away.

He said: “The farm is a self-isolating unit, everybody lives on site,  part of my team isolated into a different accommodation unit.

“We are working outside in the fields anyway,  so we keep to the two meter rule, which can be a bit of a challenge at times.

“But we have to keep this farm clean, and we’ve become quite extreme about it, it’s a bit over the top but we have to keep the place going and we are doing our very best to do that.”

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