Thousands of people have applied to pick fruit and vegetables as farms across the UK face a season without their usual workforce flying in from other countries due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
More than 26,000 applications had been received by Monday, after three firms teamed up to call on locals to “help feed the nation” by ensuring there are enough people to pick homegrown produce before it spoils.
Fruitful Jobs joined with other labour providers HOPS and Concordia to find workers after international travel routes closed and domestic movement was restricted as the UK and elsewhere deal with the spread of Covid-19.
Rachel Hubbard, from Fruitful Jobs, said: “At the heart of the alliance of HOPs, Concordia and Fruitful Jobs is to ensure we can support our growers, ensuring the farming sector receive all of their labour requirements for the forthcoming ‘busy’ season of May – August.”
In a letter to one disappointed hopeful, the firm said the response to the recruitment campaign had been “massive” and “overwhelming”, and that placements were currently filled right up until the end of May.
It added: “We are speaking with farms on a daily basis and looking at gaps further along the season.
“We will be in touch with applicants as we have placements become available.
“We really appreciate the massive response and we are sorry that we cannot help everyone, if we can we will be back in touch.”
The 53-year-old man had gone freelance just before the pandemic was declared.
Elsewhere, Home Grown – an organisation working to connect farms with their communities – has set up an interactive map called Land Army to help job seekers find seasonal work.
Furloughed staff have the right to seek work elsewhere during the shutdown as long as they have the permission of their main employer and are able to complete any training required of them while stood down.
Guidance published on the Government’s website says those on furlough who take on new work must be ready to return to their normal job at any time and must complete the relevant paperwork making their situation clear to HMRC.
According to the British Growers Association, 70,000 seasonal staff a year are needed.
Nigel Jenney, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium, the UK’s fresh produce industry trade association, welcomed the interest, but said it must translate to people being trained up and going out to work on UK farms.
He said: “What we need to ensure is that that interest becomes a reality and people do support both the harvesting and packing of the fruit and vegetables in the coming weeks and perhaps months in the UK.”
As for produce coming from Europe, he said consumers could be “confident” there will be enough coming in but said people may have to make compromises on some of their usual items.
He said: “It is certainly a challenge and will remain a challenge for some time but I think for the foreseeable numbers of weeks consumers should be confident they’ll be able to get a range of fresh produce.
“It may not always be the format they’ve historically purchased or may not always be the particular variety of their choice but the industry is working hard to make sure there is a wide range of fruit and vegetables available.”
Mr Jenney invited people to visit the recently launched On Your Doorstep website, which he said is aiming to help put local businesses including bakeries and butchers in touch with customers directly.
He said the aim was to give smaller independent businesses which have been hard-hit by the consequences of the coronavirus shutdown “an alternative route to the consumer”, linking people with outlets in their local area.
Of local recruitment efforts, Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months.
“There are already brilliant recruitment efforts under way by industry and I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.
“We will also be looking at other ways to make sure farmers have the support they need ahead of the busy harvest months, while also keeping workers safe and protected.”