The orchard fruit industry faces the risk of a “catastrophe” if a deal on European workers isn’t secured within the next year, producers have warned.
The chief executive of English Apples and Pears, which represents growers in England, has warned of huge problems for the industry if it cannot guarantee workers to pick the 2019 crop by September 2018.
The industry relies on 10,300 seasonal workers to harvest the 300,000 tonnes annual crop, worth £180m, according to an independent study by Andersons Midlands.
Workers are secured a year in advance, and a “small fraction” come from the UK, with most coming from Europe.
English Apples & Pears chief executive Steven Munday said: “The 2019 crop – and with it the future of the industry – is at stake.
“Until now the vast majority of our labour has come from Europe, but there are currently no post-Brexit guarantees that this will continue.
“It is no use waiting until March 2019 when we leave the EU to see what happens. We have to organise our workforce about a year in advance, so September 2018 is the deadline for a seasonal workers scheme to be in place.
“Without this, the consequences for growers, consumers and the environment will be devastating.”
The study found that 30% of the UK demand for orchard fruit, including plums, cherries, peaches as well as apples and pears, is met by UK growth, but without workers to pick those crops, import numbers may increase, which could be more expensive.
Mr Munday added: “Volumes grown here are up by 27% since 1997 and we’re predicting more growth for the future. In fact we’ll need 11,500 workers by 2021.
“All of this is now in jeopardy unless the labour situation is resolved. We are counting down to catastrophe.”
A Defra spokesperson told Sky News that the Environment Secretary “regularly meets with representatives from the food and farming industry, including the NFU, to speak about the issues affecting them”.
The spokesperson said Farming Minister George Eustice had recently held a “constructive discussion” with industry representatives over the issue, including prospects of attracting workers after Brexit.
“We recognise securing a strong agricultural workforce is crucial as we develop a new approach to farming outside the EU,” the spokesperson said.
The Government had commissioned advice from the Migration Advisory Committee to assess the needs of migrant workers across the economy and would look at specific needs of the food and farming industry, the spokesperson added.
British Summer Fruits warned the cost of strawberries could rise by 50% if there was a restriction on EU workers imposed in Brexit deals.