Next week food producers from all over Scotland will gather in Edinburgh for the Scotland Food and Drink Excellence Awards. It is an annual opportunity to celebrate the best Scotland has to offer but a shadow hangs over this year’s event.
From salmon farmers to shortbread producers, Brexit is the elephant in the room for all the finalists. As the saga drags on, so does the uncertainty when it comes to planning and investment. However some at the sharp end are already feeling the effects.
While Scotland this week enjoyed the first high temperatures of the year, soft-fruit producers sweated about the summer ahead. Strawberry and raspberry production is worth over £100 million to the Scottish economy and employs more than 10,000 people on a seasonal basis.
Of that number, 95 per cent come from the European Union. This week I spoke to one of the biggest producers in Scotland who agreed to lift the lid on the situation on the basis of anonymity.
“We’re really worried,” I was told. “On paper we have the staff we need at the moment but with so much uncertainty, we just don’t know who will actually turn up. For every job available, we are recruiting two people at the moment on the basis that only one make it here.”
The sector is suffering from a double whammy of setbacks. Benefit changes make it less attractive for local workers to pick for cash due to the bureaucracy surrounding additional payments.
Alongside that, the supply of EU labour has declined due to fears surrounding Brexit and the increased availability of employment in sectors such as hospitality as well as the weakness of the pound making other countries more attractive places to earn.
This week has been the first real test. The sunshine produced fast-ripening fruit which requires workers available to pick it or else it simply rots in the fields. That could be the shape of things to come. “I’m really concerned looking forward”, the major grower told me.
“We have returning staff who have been with us for years and they worry about not being welcome any more. They say to us, “is it still OK or us to come, do you still want us?”
We’re looking at different ways of picking but we will always need human labour and it is now harder than ever to get the people we require.”