Fife soft fruit growers voice Brexit fears

Strawberries could soar in price (Pic: Walter Neilson)
Strawberries could soar in price (Pic: Walter Neilson)

Uncertainty surrounding Brexit could spell disaster for the soft fruit industry in north east Fife, an industry expert has warned.

Raspberries and strawberries could rise in price by 50 per cent and fruit may even have to be imported due to a shortage of labour, it’s feared.

William Houstoun, chief executive of the fruit producing body Angus Growers – whose membership includes JG Lang and Son and Cairnie Fruit Farm in Cupar and Friarton near Newport – this week said soft fruit growers were ‘just scraping by’ this season thanks to the loyalty of the pickers, most of whom come from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.

But he said next year could be a different story as the pound continues to slump and workers are put off coming to Scotland by negative press in their own countries.

“Our members have huge concerns for the future,” said Mr Houstoun.

“They’re managing this year but they are totally dependent on seasonal workers coming from eastern Europe, who make up over 97 per cent of the workforce.

“Unfortunately the uncertainty caused by Brexit could result in disaster.”

Mr Houstoun said that due to the drop in the value of the pound, workers were effectively being paid 10 per cent less than last year, and that was also having an effect on the local economy.

“The pickers come over here to make money to send back to their families,” he said.

“If they’re making less, they’re spending less in the local community.”

Mr Houstoun said that workers were also being put off by a perceived rise in racism since the UK voted to leave the EU, as well as scare stories in some quarters of the eastern European media.

“Back home they’re reading hard luck stories about workers being exploited by gangmasters,” he said.

“That may happen in some areas down south, but here we have a very good relationship with our workers, most of whom are employed directly by the farms.”

But it’s not just the loss of the pickers that could have a devastating impact on the soft fruit industry.

Mr Houstoun also fears a ‘brain drain’ of eastern European managers and scientists, some of whom have over 10 years’ experience.

“Losing our pickers would be a disaster but losing managers and scientists would have serious long-term consequences,” he said.

“Production in north east Fife is good this year and growers are managing to harvest the crop. But if we continue to lose workers it will mean fruit prices will soar and we may even have to import from other countries.”