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Staffing, harvest and haulage issues affecting Scottish growers

Scottish broccoli and cauliflower growers are facing costly headline problems around labour, haulage and packaging shortages – along with the year-on-year battle against the weather according to Andrew Faichney, Managing Director of East of Scotland Growers (ESG) in a guest blog for NFU Scotland.

ESG are a farmer owned cooperative based in Cupar, Fife. Its main crops are broccoli and cauliflower along with a wider range of vegetable crops produced over a 180-mile radius. Andrew writes:

July was a difficult and costly month for us due to lack of product, a direct result of April frosts and May’s rain, which in turn artificially lessened the labour and haulage issues due to low volume of crops to harvest.

The inevitable flush of crop occurred this month and we have had some pretty devastating losses; on the 1st of August, we were cutting crops that were due to be harvested on the 11th of July, and by the 15th of August, we were harvesting crops due a week later. We had 6 weeks’ worth of crop, that typically have a 5-to-7-day shelf life, ripen over a two-week period.

Broccoli and cauliflower are both perishable crops and we simply could not keep up with the harvest with the workforce that we have – although granted we are not geared up to handle a 300% production period!

What this period did highlight was:

The shortage of labour on a day-to-day basis and the complete inability to call on any additional resources if and when required
that the quality, skills and attitude of our workforce continues to be an issue.

We were unable to provide the oversupply of vegetables to the freezing industry as the pea season was in full flight. We should have started our freezing production last weekend but, as yet, we haven’t frozen a single floret of broccoli.

The delay in freezing is a result of a lack of lorries to haul frozen product out of freezer stores to retail depots. With a shortage of lorries, retailers are prioritising short shelf-life products - the net result being storage is now at capacity, and there is nowhere to store processed product.

Our losses to date are somewhere in the region of 2,500,000 heads of broccoli and 1,500,000 heads of cauliflower – half of which will have been harvested then dumped out of store, with the other half being ploughed in.

Ignoring harvesting, haulage, and packaging, this carries a direct growing cost of somewhere in the region of £1.1m. This cost will continue to rise as we go through this week until the freezing of our crops can begin.

Currently, we are seeking capacity throughout the UK with limited success as many other sectors face similar options. Additionally, we have found a short-term solution that could help alleviate the problems for a third of production – but currently haulage is prohibiting us from achieving this.

I would estimate that by the start of next week we will have bypassed a further 1,000,000 heads of broccoli and 400,000 heads of cauliflower.

The above is going to have a devastating impact on this year’s production, but of possibly even greater concern is that I am not sure where we see the end of the problems – therefore losses will continue to accumulate.

The haulage issue looks likely to remain, which is fundamentally driven by labour availability. Of even greater significance is the on-farm labour, with around 80% of the required workforce on farm, workers have been earning above budget income due to level of overtime required.

The fear is that these workers will head home earlier than required due to reaching their own financial target. They are actually starting to disappear off farm already, where historically we have relied on workers finishing the fruit season and migrating over to field veg in the months of September and October.  

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