The UK’s first post-Brexit trade deals begin amid agricultural industry concerns and severe labour shortages. Andrew Livingston reports
The seventh anniversary of the British people’s vote to break away from the European Union is on 23rd June. This year, however, it was 1st June that marked a watershed moment for the UK, as the first post-Brexit trade deals with Australia and New Zealand began. For some, these two Oceanic trade deals will bring exciting opportunities to grow their businesses, selling more easily into the two countries.
For UK agriculture, however, there begins an anxious wait. Farmers are concerned that their high-welfare (and therefore costly-to-produce) food is going to be undercut by Australian and New Zealand-produced meat.
Sell the herd
Unfortunately, this isn’t actually the biggest issue for UK farming in the post-Brexit era – that issue is still labour. Tighter restrictions on immigration have left the UK’s agriculture sector short of its necessary and willing foreign workers, as the British workforce is still unwilling to fill the gap.
Richard and Dee Foot, who farm in Bishops Caundle near Sherborne, have experienced this first-hand in the last few years. Dee told the BV how they have now had to stop milking cows as they couldn’t find a herdsman.
She said: ‘We put several advertisements out and the people who applied weren’t particularly suitable. Richard did offer the job to someone, a local man – he shook Richard’s hand and then never turned up!
‘We had people not bothering to turn up for the interview, too. The British view is if they can get more money, they’ll go for it. It’s not all, obviously, but there’s an awful lot of British people who think the world owes them a favour. If they can get a better deal, there’s no commitment.’
Previously, foreign workers could have filled the position, but Richard and Dee have now sold their dairy herd and are instead rearing dairy heifers to be sold.
The vast majority of British people don’t fancy the hard work that comes with working in agriculture – and Dee says that the workers of tomorrow aren’t going to be any different.
‘I mean, we took on a load of young lads, and I’m afraid they were an absolute waste of space. Richard found them asleep in the tractor! Youngsters today just don’t have the commitment.
‘I’ve worked since I could work, basically. Even when I was at college I used to work weekends and school holidays. We had a young lad here last July, and even though he’s on half term this week he hasn’t come to us to ask us for any extra hours at all.’
There is no bucolic idyll
Over in Blandford, Jim Farquharson, Managing Director of B & W Feeds says this has been their worst year so far looking for labour.
‘What we seem to have done is cut ourselves off from a supply of seasonal labour from countries that have more of a rural-based economy; therefore they have a working population that is more used to working in agriculture-related sectors. We don’t have that here in the UK anymore.Our workforce has become very divorced from that – despite what the government tells us about a “willing UK labour force that is ready to come back into the field”. They are not!
‘There is this bucolic idea in Westminster of these happy Eastenders coming out of London to go and pick hops in Kent. And it’s just not reality.’
As a sideline, Jim also has a silo pressure-washing business which he is now struggling to staff.
‘I think that they have this view [on] immigration, that I agree with – you know, no one wants to see people illegally trying to get into this country … But we are then losing sight of the need for legal immigration and necessary seasonal workforces.’
Jim didn’t vote for Brexit and is, like many farmers, concerned about the upcoming trade deals that will replace the European Single Market.
‘On the back of trade deals I think agriculture is probably being regarded as, excuse the pun, the sacrificial lamb. They’re going out to seek trade deals because they’ve lost the European market. But a lot of deals are being done with countries using agriculture as leverage.
‘Farming in the UK has a double pressure – everybody wants cheap food, which is fine, except we’re also being asked to farm to the very highest welfare and environmental standards. Those come with a cost.
‘The worry is that we will export our moral conscience too, by saying, “Okay, well, that’s fine, we’ll just bring in cheap food from abroad”.’