Have just been listening to the Farming Today team picking fruit in Herefordshire. How rude they were about polytunnels.
Without them UK soft fruit growers could not supply supermarkets. They protect our crop from rain, wind and dust. They make it possible to pick when it’s pouring with rain.
Tunnels are the field equivalent of the Sydney Opera House, they roll and undulate, they cocoon our fruit and protect our workers, they reduce the need for pesticides and are re-usable and recyclable. A slug is frog food, with occasionally interesting frilly skirts.
Of course I understand that people don’t want swathes of plastic shrouding their field views, they’d rather have glorious open countryside, but consider this:
Soft fruit prices have been static or reducing for the last 10 years. Over this period input costs have sky rocketed. Labour, transport, fuel, packaging, health and safety – you name it, it’s gone up. The simplest figure to look at is labour:
In 2001 the average price for raspberries was £10.09/kg and the agricultural hourly rate was £4.10/hour.
In 2009 the average price for raspberries was £7.13/kg and,when you factor in holiday pay and national insurance , neither of which used to be applicable for casual farm workers but are now compulsory, the minimum hourly rate is £7.07 per hour.
One of the Farming Today team managed to earn 96p for a morning’s picking, I don’t know how long she was working – let’s be generous and say it was only an hour, subsidising her wages would cost the farm an additional £4.85 plus NI and holiday pay – scale that up over a week and she’s cost £194 for nothing. No useful work for that extra money at all. Not a great mathematical challenge to see why we have had to become more efficient in our farming practices – every berry counts.
It’s simple pimples – you want British soft fruit for the same price you were paying 10 years ago or less, you’re going to have polytunnels. It’s the only way we can produce the quality and volume required to earn the money to pay the fruit pickers. If you’re happy to pay more for your fruit however, I’m sure some other arrangement could be made. Little strawberry hats? Raspberry Mittens? Blackcurrant overcoats, hmmm……
PS: Pssst, here’s the really funny thing, Farming Today people, after a week, pickers don’t mind the hard work. They’re fitter, quicker, more competitive and smilier. You know that feeling you get when you got to the gym, run a couple of miles, take a dance class? It’s the same with hard, physical work. And I know this, I really know this, because I’ve done it – for years I got up day after to day to cut celery, pick tomatoes, battle cucumbers – I’ve lived in a caravan through wind and rain and storm and sunshine. It didn’t kill me. It gave me an appreciation of what I’m capable of and arm muscles to die for.