Farming in the Blackmore Vale

Here comes trouble | Farm tales

Ever since Brexit was confirmed, Britain has been slowly careering toward a meaty iceberg, ominously bobbing in the sea. The Government, for now, has managed to avert a meat crisis – but your Sunday roasts aren’t safe yet, says Andrew Livingston.

Image by Andrew Livingston

If you hadn’t heard, the current crisis involved pigs – and the lack of people able and willing to kill, cut and process the animals for them to be available on our shelves for consumption.

In a Post-Brexit world, all the skilled workers that usually perform this work are of European nationalities and unable to work here.

Backlogged Pigs

The Government knew this was an issue and last month created 5,500 working visas for the poultry sector to try to save Christmas.
Pigs meanwhile were ignored, and left to sit on farms without the skilled workers to kill them. This led to a backlog of 150,000 pigs that we close to being slaughtered on-farm – meaning that their meat would be unable to go into the food sector. Worryingly, the Government’s stance was that it would hopefully solve itself and British workers would fill the position (even though it takes 18 months to train to take on one of these positions).
The Government’s attitude was typified by Boris Johnson in an interview when he stated that “culled pigs would have died anyway” – completely missing the reason farmers nurture and grow their animals.

The solution sees prices rise
Since then, 800 six-month visas have been granted to clear the backlog of pigs needing to be killed – but this issue will not go away.
After this six months is up European workers will be required again – the British public frankly don’t have the desire to complete this skilled work. One food processing plant put leaflets through the doors of their local town advertising working opportunities in their business – 15,000 leaflets generated three phone calls and no interviews.
And it’s not just butchers that are needed. In the summer, workers are needed to pick fruit, veg and flowers in the fields. Vast sums of money can be earned per hour by picking – however you are paid by the amount you pick, rather than time spent in the fields. This incentivises fast, hard workers. During the ‘Pick for Britain’ campaign last summer, farmers were having to top up wages for local workers to meet the minimum wages.
It’s not a new issue – in 2018 when talking to the Independent, Stephanie Maurel, the chief executive of Concordia, a recruitment company that supplies workers to about 200 British farms, said they had virtually zero Brits apply. “We’ve had two applications out of 10,000,” she says. “It’s statistically quite damning.” When asked why this was, she suggest early hours, long days, physical toll, seasonality, lack of affordable transport, “and, quite simply, the farms aren’t in places with high levels of unemployment.”

The Government has called on the agricultural sector to make its jobs more appealing to the public. Undoubtedly this will happen with increased wages, but higher wages will only inflate the cost of the food or reduce the price paid to the farmer (the middle man never takes the brunt), heightening the want for cheaper foreign imports on our shelves.

Image by Andrew Livingston

Crisis averted – for now

Covid taught us that we need to be self-sufficient at feeding the nation – food security. We must move forward from cheap foreign imports to feed our population and begin to back British farming.

The British Titanic is slowly turning and looking like it’ll survive this winter with the help of European workers. Unfortunately, if attitudes don’t begin to change then all we are doing is moving deck chairs.

by Andrew Livingston

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