The day I enlisted in the Asparagus Army: With migrant workers staying away, Britain’s farmers have turned to a rag-tag band of electricians and bankers to pick fruit and veg… so JANE FRYER donned her gardening gear and joined them in the fields
Bruce Kerr is a third-generation farmer in Suffolk, with 150 of his sandy acres dedicated to early asparagus.
Each year, 90 experienced pickers will gather 500-600 tonnes of plump green spears from his land between the beginning of April and June 21, when the season ends.
They’ll pick from 6am to 6pm, with just 60 minutes’ break. Each day, they’ll walk almost four miles, bend down some 20,000 times and break at least one knife.
Top of the crops: The Mail’s Jane Fryer is pictured above picking asparagus on the farm. Today, farmers have two main worries about the domestically-recruited ‘Land Army’: speed and retention
Pretty much all of them hail from Poland and Lithuania. Drawn by the pay, bonuses and subsidised accommodation in caravans on site, they come back year after year.
Until now. This year, thanks to coronavirus, just 18 of Bruce’s experienced pickers have arrived from Europe.
Some can’t travel. Some are scared to. One group of Lithuanians got to the airport to find their plane cancelled at the last minute.
And Bruce is by no means the only farmer with this particular headache. On Sunday, Environment Secretary George Eustice estimated that only a third of the usual contingent of migrant labourers made it into Britain before lockdown and urged workers on furlough to help get the harvest in.
So this season, Bruce will be relying on a rather more motley crew of pickers ranging in age from 17 to their early 60s.
Pickers Katia, left, and Natalie Cardin are pictured above on the farm. Each year, 90 experienced pickers will gather 500-600 tonnes of plump green spears from his land between the beginning of April and June 21, when the season ends
None has previous experience. Some have never tasted asparagus or have any idea how it grows. (The spears shoot up from ten-year-old ‘crowns’, 18in underground.)
In their usual lives, they are plasterers, electricians, chefs, actors, designers, builders, financial workers, students and sixth-formers. But they need the money.
Bruce is just one of thousands of beleaguered British farmers now relying on the national push to recruit British pickers.
Last month, Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, a non-profit recruiter supplying around 8,000 seasonal workers, put out a call to arms for British workers.
‘We are looking for anyone: workers who have recently lost their job, students who’ve been sent home … Please, please, come forward.’
And last week, Defra launched its big Pick For Britain campaign in an effort to mobilise a Land Army not seen since wartime.
Prince Charles lent his support in an interview with Country Life Magazine in which he paid tribute to Britain’s 80,000 farmers.
Romanian workers are pictured above arriving into Stansted Airport earlier this month. they were tasked by one UK grower to teach British workers how to pick fruit and vegetables
‘Food does not happen by magic. If the past few weeks have proved anything, it is that we cannot take it for granted,’ he said.
Here in sunny Suffolk, meanwhile, Bruce’s asparagus is growing like a weed. On a hot sunny day, each spear can shoot up (or ‘flush’) by 4in.
‘You can almost see it growing,’ Bruce says. ‘You can’t not pick it for a bit and come back later — the whole crop would be ruined.’
Given its retail value of £6 a kilo, his livelihood could be ruined, too.
‘It’s real seat-of-the-pants stuff,’ he says. ‘I haven’t slept for weeks.’
Little wonder, then, that some farmers are embracing different solutions. Andrew Gardiner, head of G’s Group’s Sandfield Farms division, took matters into his own hands, and 12 days ago, at a cost of £40,000, the first of six privately chartered flights from Romania touched down at Stansted.
On board were 150 of the company’s regular workers — here to work and to teach Gardiner’s British recruits just how it’s done.
But Bruce couldn’t afford to charter a plane. So in March, after several weeks of sleepless nights, he put out an appeal for pickers on Twitter — and was inundated.
On Sunday, Environment Secretary George Eustice (above) estimated that only a third of the usual contingent of migrant labourers made it into Britain before lockdown and urged workers on furlough to help get the harvest in
‘The response was phenomenal!’ he says. ‘Hundreds of applicants of all ages and occupations. I am so grateful people want to help out.’
With no caravans this year to house his workers, he has a strict locals-only criteria: Ten miles, maximum, to minimise unnecessary travel. Anyone further away, he puts in touch with other farmers in need. The rest, he sifts with a toothcomb because this is no job for the fainthearted.
According to farm foreman Dan, even regular migrant workers are broken after the first couple of days of the season, before their back and glutes toughen up.
They press on because they’re reliant on the money. With the UK minimum wage of £8.72 per hour, plus bonuses for productivity and completing the season, they usually clear £100 a day, six days a week.
And also because they’re committed. They’ve left family and friends and travelled thousands of miles to live onsite in tiny shared caravans for months on end.
Today, farmers have two main worries about the domestically-recruited ‘Land Army’: speed and retention.
‘I get paid per kilo but they get paid per hour, so if they’re very slow then very quickly it won’t add up,’ says Bruce. ‘I’ll have to work out a whole new rota system, too, because they’ll never manage a 12-hour shift’.
During my visit, I ask three members of Bruce’s usual team how they think the home-grown pickers will get on. They all laugh, and roll their eyes. ‘It’s hard work,’ they tell me. ‘It is not an easy job.’
According to one farmer, who asks not to be named: ‘It’s a combination of stigma, hard work, lack of stamina and laziness. And surprise surprise, in the past, when local workers have applied, we’ve had a very low rate of return.’
But Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, thinks that might all be changing.
‘In an economy with less than four per cent unemployment, we’ve not had the people minded to get stuck into hard manual labour,’ he says. ‘But now, with lost jobs, we have hard-working people caught up in the wake of the pandemic. It is a very different pool of people to recruit from.’
Anxious that home-grown pickers will be too soft for the job, Bruce has organised a series of ‘training sessions’ for up to 30 people, including me, to give an hour-long taster of the job.
Last week, Defra launched its big Pick For Britain campaign in an effort to mobilise a Land Army not seen since wartime. Pickers are pictured above [File photo]
I met Michael, 51, who, until a few weeks ago, worked in securities for an investment bank in the City, but was laid off and found himself with just three months’ buffer.
‘I need to do something, but I’m quite a big chap so I’m worried I’ll not be up to the job.’
Asparagus-picking is physical but it isn’t brain surgery. The instruction itself takes about five minutes: slice down into the soil through the spear at an angle, be very careful of the smaller spears, and ‘cut and chuck’ anything too spindly, too wonky or nibbled by a rabbit.
Oh yes, and apply sun cream lavishly, drink plenty of water (there are Portaloos in the corner of the fields) and leave your pickings in bunches along your row to collect later while you stretch your back out. And that’s about it.
By happy chance, the rows of asparagus crowns are planted exactly two metres apart — perfect for social isolation but not too far apart for a good chinwag.
The students chatter cheerily on and on about shattered gap year plans, aborted A-levels, missed parties and whether interrailing will ever happen again.
‘This is the most people I’ve seen for a month,’ says Imo, 18, who is hoping to do film studies at Nottingham University in the autumn, lockdown allowing.
On my left is Ed Yelland, 31, a handsome actor who, if it wasn’t for Covid-19, would be limbering up for opening night in an off- Broadway play in New York.
Two down from him is Alexander Herbe-George, a 31-year-old set designer from nearby Snape, who found himself suddenly with no work and no money for the rent.
At the end of the training sessions, the sign-up rate is over 90 per cent and Bruce is beaming — hopeful that, next year, even if the world has gone back to normal, he’ll tempt some locals back.
‘It’s a real opportunity for everyone to work together. This isn’t a Suffolk or UK issue, it’s a global Western society issue,’ he says.
‘I’m so pleased. I was nervous but they seemed to really enjoy it.’
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