Will seasonal labour problems continue to hamper the fresh produce industry?


With ominous predictions about the fate of this year’s harvests, those outside the fresh produce industry may believe that labour shortages are a recent development brought on by Covid-19. In truth though, this has been a problem growers have faced for some time.

The traditional model of relying on seasonal workers from abroad has begun to falter - a result of increasing demand and legislation limiting the working rights of foreign pickers and packers. In the UK, Brexit has been a driver of uncertainty in this area, with the 2019 harvest affected as a result. Now, with further restrictions on movement looking set to stay, we ask when we may see an end to seasonal labour shortages, and what the alternative solutions look like.

An unsustainable model?

In the 20 years to 2018, soft fruit production increased by 185% in the UK. With this trend mirrored across the world, it’s clear labour demands in the industry are increasing.

Conversely, the number of seasonal workers fresh produce businesses are able to attract is not keeping up with demand. This can partly be blamed on recent political phenomena. Brexit has caused uncertainty over the future of seasonal migrant workers in the UK, while the falling value of the currency has reduced the incentive for people to travel to work in the country.

However, this trend in the UK precedes Brexit. A lack of domestic workers willing to take these seasonal jobs has long been a cause for concern, with many in the industry feeling successive governments have failed to sufficiently incentivise agricultural work. Meanwhile, the end of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme in 2013 has also been cited as harmful to the industry’s ability to recruit.

Unprecedented restrictions on the movement of seasonal workers have been brought on by coronavirus. It remains to be seen if government efforts to continue recruiting workers from abroad and schemes aimed at attracting domestic workers like Pick for Britain will be enough to keep seasonal labour at the required numbers. What is certain, though, is that once the pandemic is over, seasonal labour issues will still exist. The lack of sustainability in the current model will continue to be a problem - radical thinking and new solutions are needed to address this.

How can the fresh produce industry change in response?

Whether it concerns boosting efficiency, increasing yields or protecting against climate change, the fresh produce industry won’t be successful in battling the biggest challenges of our time without embracing new solutions. Tackling labour shortages is one of these challenges - and big gains could be made quickly by using machinery or technology to make up for the shortfall in seasonal workers.

A survey of Californian farmers last year found that many have already turned to mechanisation and automation as a solution. More than a quarter of those questioned claimed to have started using more machinery and technology over the previous 5 years as a direct response to labour shortages.

Machinery for picking soft fruit is admittedly still in its infancy, due to the delicate nature of the produce. The majority of fresh produce businesses, even in developed economies, won’t have access to such technology soon, but there is great interest in developing robotic solutions and advancements are being made quickly.

The more acute the worker scarcities become, the more investment will be made in ensuring picking and packing technology is efficient and affordable. Once it reaches the required standard, the industry may finally be ready to break free from concerns around seasonal labour and refocus on the challenges ahead.

The role of Fresh ERP in easing the transition

The fresh produce industry can sometimes be slow to embrace technological advances - often with good reason, due to the highly complex nature of producing food. To ease the transition, and help technology drive your business forward, an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution could make all the difference.

ERP is a blend of intuitive hardware and software that helps businesses achieve more efficient, data-led ways of working. Crucially, fresh produce ERP allows for simple integration of new technologies into a business’ existing framework. This is a boon for fresh producers, letting them achieve advancement through mechanisation/automation while maintaining a single centralised point of truth. It can help the introduction of packhouse technology that assists with palletising, labelling and grading and sorting. In time, it will also accommodate the kind of fruit-picking robotics we discussed earlier, when these are widely available.

It’s not just with integration of technology that ERP can help to reduce the reliance on seasonal workers, though. It also helps businesses organise the workforce they do have more effectively, increasing productivity and taking pressure off individual staff members. The most advanced fresh ERP systems have dedicated modules for providing production schedules based on changing levels of demand. Simple, fresh produce-appropriate hardware like touchscreen terminals deliver this information to workers clearly, and allow them to easily record their progress.

It’s clear that to achieve the kind of adaptation that is needed to reduce the industry’s over-reliance on seasonal labour, an integrated approach is needed to help businesses evolve. Fresh ERP can act as the bridge to help them achieve this lasting change.

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