Farmers reap the harvest of voting Brexit

by Charlie Mitchell | 02.12.2016

In the run-up to June’s European referendum, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) campaigned for Remain. The Electoral Commission’s referendum spending review, published this week, shows that the NFU spent £73,565.06 on campaigning – enough to register as an official campaign group.

While we don’t know exactly how farmers voted, an April survey by Farmers Weekly found 58% of British farmers favoured Brexit. In addition, the Country Land and Business Association found that rural areas voted Leave more heavily than the national average.

But Brexit could exacerbate already serious labour shortages on farms. Horticulture alone requires around 80,000 seasonal workers to hand-pick fruit and vegetables across the UK. According to the NFU, this is expected to rise to 95,000 by 2021. “If there aren’t enough people to pick the crops when harvest is underway, valuable food crops could be left to rot in the fields”, an NFU press officer told InFacts in October. Concern about labour shortages extends also across food and drink, a £108bn industry which employs 3.9 million people.

The Financial Times reported yesterday that almost half the British companies providing agricultural labour were unable to fulfil the horticultural sector’s demand for workers in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote – between July and September. According to an NFU survey due to be published next week, the supply of pickers for late season crops was only enough to meet 67% of the industry’s needs.

The survey also found that a quarter of seasonal farm workers quit their jobs in the third quarter of 2016 (after the referendum) – a six-fold increase compared with the first quarter (before the referendum). Of the 80,000 seasonal workforce in horticulture alone, 98% are migrants from elsewhere in the EU.  

Several factors are likely to be putting European migrants off working in the UK. First, the Brexit vote saw a rise in xenophobic attacks. The number of hate crimes recorded in July was 41% higher than the previous year, while a London Polish community centre was vandalised and a Polish man was murdered in August in Harlow, Essex. Second, a weak pound has reduced the euro value of wages sent home by EU workers. And third, is possible that the prospect of a weaker UK economy has begun to deter EU migrants.

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Angela Leadsom said at the Conservative Party conference in October that young Britons should “engage with countryside matters” and take up seasonal fruit-picking jobs. Such statements might appease Brexiters, but restrictions on migration could be dangerous for British farming. Farmers have already indicated they will press for visas for seasonal workers if the UK ceases to benefit from free movement in the EU, for instance because of leaving the single market.

Finding European labour may be the most pressing concern for British farming, but it is not the only one. In 2015 UK farmers received almost €3.1bn in direct EU funding – according to the NFU – which they have asked the Treasury to ringfence. The yield from the Brexit harvest do not look to good for British farmers so far.

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Edited by Michael Prest

8 Responses to “Farmers reap the harvest of voting Brexit”

  • This goes to the heart of the question: why do so many people so often vote against their own interests?

    Having said that, speaking as someone working in market research I feel obliged to point out that the Farmers’ Weekly poll was hardly a model of statistical robustness, which they freely admit.


  • Fact is, the proportion of employment in the UK overall provided by agriculture, forestry and fisheries is 1% of the UK working population. That’s right ONE PERCENT. Rest assured the IK Treasury knows this full well. If we’re out of the EU by 2020, come 2021 UK farmers can forget the still relatively generous Common Agricultural Policy which successive U.K. governments have been striving to cut for the last 40 years. Treasury replacement funding in ful? Not a chance. New Zealand style abolition of farming grants more likely. Maybe turkeys DO vote for Christmas.

  • As a farmer who voted Remain, I am somewhat mystified as to why (it seems) a majority of farmers voted Leave. I can’t imagine that anyone seriously believed the likes of George Eustice when he said that subsidies would stay the same “and could even be increased” thanks to some of the magic £350m. While it may be true that only 1% of the working population works on the land, there is a more important message which the NFU has recently sent to our soon-to-be-busy trade negotiators: “We have world-beating standards and we don’t want to see them watered down; if we are forced to compete against those with lower standards that will be a problem….We need to make sure trade negotiators know what the industry is about because if, as part of ill-thought out negotiations, we end up exporting our farming, we export our food processing industry as well and that is worth more to the economy than the motor industry and aerospace combined.”

  • You get what you vote for.

    Everyone was warned, again and again, what voting to Leave would mean.

    Those who voted Leave, well, not so rosy looking now, is it? Mind you, I’m sure all those ‘establishment’ types you were using this vote to protest against must be quaking in their fur-lined boots over your little demonstration.

    Oh no, all the people we voted to get rid of, all the countries we wanted to divorce ourselves from, now the people aren’t coming here any more. Well, you know what? Too f**king bad. You made your choice, now deal with it. Same with Wales, and Cornwall, who voted in the majority to Leave, yet now want to keep getting all the funding the EU sent to them provided by the UK. Not going to happen.

    Me? I’m just going to settle in to watch as this country tears itself apart in front of the whole world. We used to be an example to the world of what a tolerant, accepting, open-hearted society could accomplish. Now, we’re just the example used to warn others.

    Let the place burn, it’s what the ‘majority’ voted for, after all.

  • Fully agreee with all the above as a remainder myself.
    Trouble is that even if Environment, Traceability and production Agri payments were ring fenced and paid they will be worth nothing when a tsunamis of cheap food from hastily conjured trade deals are made and completely under mine our price.
    Classic example is the EU tariff of €2.00/kg on Brazilian beef which can be produced at €1.50/kg in Brazil.
    Also the EU limit of 50000 tonne of NZ lamb will disappear on top of losing the French market for our lamb!
    God help the red meat industry here; it could be Armageddon

  • On the subject of agriculture and fisheries: can anyone explain why I spot large, clearly locally owned, fishing vehicles in Scheveningen, NL, with a Portsmouth registration? Another quirk that stimulated Brexit was to keep out foreign fishing activities.

  • What this demonstrates to me is that many of the pro-Brexit MPs don’t fully understand the implications of what they are demanding. Whether that is simply a lack of knowledge or willful ignorance is debateable. Certainly on agriculture I suspect some farmers may have voted Brexit in the belief this would remove some of the animal welfare and animal health regulations, or that DEFRA would have to continue the subsidies no matter what. What they seem to have missed is that the advantage of having the Commission responsible for these matters means that a change of governing Party in the UK didn’t put them at risk of having the subsidies or the regulations changed at the whim of some favoured lobby group.

    Another comment here mentions large fishing vessels berthed in Dutch ports, but registered in the UK. This may well be the result of non-EU legislation from the International Maritime Organisation which permits owners/operators to register and ‘flag’ their ships in countries other than that in which the ship is based or in whose waters it operates. Thus, on the Rhine, one sees ‘cruise’ ships flying the Maltese ensign. If my sources are correct, I, as a resident of Germany, could register a fishing boat in Portsmouth and crew it with ‘EU nationals’ and obtain a ‘quota’ to fish in the UK waters, just as a UK owner can do the same in Germany, France or anywhere else. I would suspect the Dutch have been enterprising enough to do this, while UK owners have not.

  • In the 70s I used to supervise gangs of casual labour on farms. In those days these people were exclusively British, and came from 2 main groups. 1) Romanies, hippies and other travellers , and 2) people who lived in nearby villages.
    Since then the Government and the NIMBYs have persecuted travellers to such an extent that few can now work their circuits of farms. And housing policy has sold off village houses as holiday homes, or expensive buy to rent properties, which people cannot afford without well paid town jobs. AT the same time cuts in rural bus services mean that workers cannot move out from cities to do the work, even if they could survive in the city on an agricultural casual wage.
    Foreign students etc were ideal workers, as like most students they were prepared to work hard, live in hostels, and accept low pay providing that hostels and transport were OK.
    Quite frankly those who voted for Brexit, and the Nimbys have now got what they deserved. If they cant afford to eat, then maybe they will think about where their self centred behaviour has got them. The pity is that the rest of us will suffer as well.