Fruit: A bright future ahead despite labour concerns

Labour availability and changing weather patterns pose considerable challenges to fruit and vine growers, but armed with the latest varieties, technology and advice there is a bright future ahead.

Visitors to the Fruit Focus event in Kent last week were keen to tackle the issues head on, debating Brexit policies with MPs, learning about advances in crop protection and nutrition, and seeing the newest labour-saving machinery in action.

“We’re at a bit of a crossroads,” explained Amy Gray, NFU horticulture adviser. “We need 80,000 seasonal workers and 10,000 permanent workers each year, and we’re seeing increasing numbers of people saying labour supply isn’t meeting demand.”

In May there was a 16.4% shortfall in worker availability – equivalent to about 4,500 jobs across the UK, said Miss Gray. Without that workforce, over 99% of which was eastern European, the fruit industry would suffer catastrophic losses, she added.

Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, said it was essential that the Government establish a new seasonal workers scheme as quickly as possible, or consumers would see soft fruit prices soar by up to 50%.

Defra minister George Eustice, who visited the event, assured visitors that the Government was well aware of the labour issue and was monitoring developments closely.

Mr Eustice also opened the new NIAB EMR Water Efficient Technologies (WET) centre, which showcases the latest developments in irrigation management and moisture sensing technology.

“With climate change, lack of water is a challenge for the industry,” said Mr Eustice. “But this is a highly innovative sector. The solution is in technological advances and making more precise use of our resources.”

NIAB EMR research showed that strawberry growers could reduce usage of water, fertilisers, pesticides and energy by 20%, while also increasing yields by 10% using the Precise Irrigation Package.

Berry Gardens, the UK’s leading berry and stone fruit production group, revealed how valuable investment was, with soaring demand, high yields and excellent quality combining to break many records this year. “Quality across all berries has been phenomenal,” said chairman Alastair Brooks. With new varieties extending the season, investment in refrigeration, and close collaboration with retailers, the sector was on a high and had an extremely bright future, labour difficulties aside.

Of course, there are always other challenges in the form of pests and diseases – something which AHDB and NIAB EMR have been trying to address. “Western flower thrips have been a huge problem in strawberries recently, and can cause yield losses of over 50%,” said Scott Raffle, research and knowledge exchange manager at AHDB Horticulture. But supplementing or replacing the existing method of control – the predatory N.cucumeris mite – with a combination of other predators, could be the answer.

The trials found that adding in the mite Machrocheles robustulus and the nematode Steinernema feltiae reduced adult thrip emergence to around 5% against an untreated control of about 60%. “We’ve had very good results.”

With traditional pesticides losing efficacy or being withdrawn from market, growers were increasingly relying on natural pest control, said Minshad Ansari, managing director at Bionema. It launched its new NemaTrident range at the event, boasting 20% more efficiency than existing products and delivering up to 99% kill rate.

In the demonstration area, farmers looking to reduce labour were keen to see NP Seymour show off its driverless Fendt tractor, while the UK Vineyards Association explained how to maximise grape yields and quality in the Vines to Wines exhibit.

NIAB EMR also hosted tours around its research facility, visiting the concept pear orchard and vineyard. Now in its first fruiting year, the vineyard was comparing different growing systems and identifying varieties which could grow in the UK in 10-20 years’ time.

“Fruit and vines comprise one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture, and it’s vital that we look ahead to prepare for a bright future,” said Jon Day, event organiser at Comexposium. “Bringing together over 1,300 industry professionals Fruit Focus is the perfect platform to showcase and discuss the latest research, innovations and products. The years ahead present both challenges and opportunities and we’re looking forward to partnering the industry through Brexit and beyond.”