UK farmers might move production abroad, while others could give up if they cannot hire the staff, an industry representative has said.
“Not all farmers are capable of going across the water to mainland Europe,” said Laurence Olins, chairman of British Summer Fruits, a trade body.
“If there is no labour, most of the businesses will close.”
The UK government has said it will use a transition period to ensure employers are not left without workers after Brexit, but so far there is no clear sign of how it plans to do that.
For 70 years, Tim Chambers’ family has harvested fruit in south-east England, but after last year’s Brexit vote he expanded into Poland and is ready to sell some of his land if a shortage of migrant workers worsens.
His firm, WB Chambers & Son, has relied heavily on seasonal staff from eastern Europe for the past two decades as it focused on growing raspberries and blackberries that require laborious harvesting by hand.
Typically, at the height of the summer season, 1,200 migrant workers from other EU states pick the delicate berries from more than 520km of rows of bushes planted across rolling land in Kent.
This year, Mr Chambers found it harder to recruit workers at the start of the season in June. Many workers hesitated about coming to Britain after the fall in the value of the pound since the vote for Brexit. Although he eventually filled his rosters, for the first time he does not have a waiting list of candidates hoping to come to his farm in August to work until the spring.
“If we don’t get a secure supply of labour, we will have to adjust the size of our business and restructure to make us more efficient in the new economic situation and look to produce product abroad,” Mr Chambers said.
Nick Ottewell, farming director for Laurence J Betts, a Kent-based salad grower, said the family-owned farm he works for was not big enough for relocation to be a viable option.
“The worst-case scenario is that we don’t have enough people, and then we don’t have a business,” said Mr Ottewell, whose company employs 120 seasonal workers.
The National Farmers’ Union reported a 17% drop in seasonal workers coming to work on British farms from the start of 2017 through May, leaving unfilled 1,500 of the 9,411 seasonal jobs needed for horticulture that month.
Employers in other sectors have said they are seeing signs that Britain has become less attractive to foreign workers who often fill jobs that Britons are unwilling to do for low wages.
As much as 43% of employers in education and 49% in healthcare said staff from other EU countries had considered leaving Britain.
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