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  1. ITV Report

Cornwall farmer fears Brexit uncertainty could leave him short of fruit pickers

Uncertainty over Brexit is being blamed for a shortage in the number of fruit pickers in the West Country.

According to National Farmers Union, a drop in the number of seasonal workers means thousands of tonnes of fruit and vegetables are being left to rot.

It carried out a survey which revealed the equivalent of 16 million apples went unharvested this year.

Farmer Jeremy Best grows soft fruit in Cornwall. Credit: ITV News

Jeremy Best has been growing soft fruits like strawberries in Cornwall for more than 40 years.

At least half are picked by Czech workers who come for the season, and half by local staff.

This summer he says he managed to get by - but next year he is concerned there won't be enough pickers.

Farmer Jeremy Best says he would be happy to have either British or European workers. Credit: ITV News

If the fruit is red and needs picking I have to find people to do it, and my worry is next year maybe that there won't be so many people because they're a bit worried about their whether they're wanted here. I mean I want them, I want the Brits as well, but if we can't find them and I'm going for a lot of farms obviously the farms will get smaller and we will shrink. If a farmer sees some waste he will think twice and he will say 'right, cut back'. There's a financial loss but also there's an emotional loss. You've put your heart and soul into that crop and you can't pick it because of the fact that you can't find pickers, and that's when a farmer will turn around and say no we're not doing so much.

– Jeremy Best, soft fruit grower
Jeremy Best says he is worried about next year's fruit harvest. Credit: ITV News

An NFU survey found there has already been an 11 percent worker shortage in horticulture this year - leading to tonnes of unpicked crops - particularly for apple growers.

There are fears that could lead to a reduction in UK farming - and poor quality imports replacing locally grown food.

Many farms employ people from Europe to pick fruit. Credit: ITV News

The Government already has a 'seasonal workers pilot project' which allows non-EU migrant workers from other parts of the world to come here temporarily to do seasonal work - the NFU wants to see that rapidly expanded to tackle the problem.

The NFU is of the opinion that needs to be a much much bigger scheme, we need to recruit probably 60,000 or 70,000 seasonal workers to fill the roles at harvest time so 2,500 is really a drop in the ocean. This scheme does need to be expanded to maybe up to 30,000 to start with.

– David George, National Farmers Union
David George from the NFU wants the Government to expand its pilot scheme. Credit: ITV News

EU citizens can continue to come to the UK for work in 2019 and 2020, regardless of whether the UK reaches a deal with the EU. This includes for seasonal work on farms and in food businesses. The seasonal workers pilot is not designed to meet the full labour needs of the horticultural sector. Rather, we are seeking to evaluate the immigration pilot’s ability to assist in alleviating labour shortages during peak production periods.”

– Defra spokesman