Apple Farmers Face Crunch Time, As Coronavirus Bites Hard

Lockdown led to a shortage of buyers and pickers. Now orchards are bracing for harvest.
HUIZENG HU via Getty Images

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In the depths of lockdown, with restaurants closed and major events cancelled, farmers struggled to sell and distribute their produce. Masses of strawberries and potatoes were reported to have gone to waste. Not only were there fewer buyers, social distancing and ‘stay at home’ meant a shortage of pickers, too.

The reopening of restaurants for sensible amounts of visitors in early July helped kickstart the food sector’s ecosystem, providing more opportunities for producers to make sales. But farmers are still absorbing the short and long term effects of Covid-19 on their businesses, while also harvesting their crops.

This includes establishing how social distancing will work on the ground at harvest time; how supply and demand will be affected by new consumer eating habits, such as restaurant no-shows; and how a lack of workers travelling from mainland Europe will affect production – a possible dress rehearsal for Brexit.

The next seasonal British fruit to arrive in season is the apple, with a picking season from August until November. Apple farmers say it is too early to know exactly how badly they will be affected by fallout from the pandemic – but they are already concerned.

Apple picking season starts in mid-August, but some orchards are reporting a lack of pickers
British Apples and Pears
Apple picking season starts in mid-August, but some orchards are reporting a lack of pickers

The cost of producing the fruit has risen in line with the rise in the cost of living by 14p per kilo over the past five years, and this surge has been compounded by Covid-19, according to analysis by Andersons. The research suggests producers face higher costs than ever in 2020 – and the most challenging landscape ever for harvesting and selling.

“We have to get enough money for our quality produce due to the high costs of casual labour and packaging,” says Richard Smedley from the Four Elms fruit farm in Devon, painting a picture of the current landscape for orchard owners.

“There are limits for mechanisation on harvesting apples and at near £10 an hour [for staff] you start realising the problem.”

Talk of food waste may surprise those used to hearing talk of how, as consumers, we’ve wasted a lot less food than usual under lockdown.

Empty supermarket shelves and supply issues forced us to savour the stuff we did have in our cupboards. And the nation took to cooking from home with collective zeal.

But the problem facing the apple industry follows on from the situation producers faced earlier in the season, when rotten fruit and veg piled up after social distancing measures made it impossible to pick the produce on time – despite there being demand from the public.

Apple pickers often travel from mainland Europe, but this year many are not returning to their seasonal jobs because of the virus
British Apples and Pears
Apple pickers often travel from mainland Europe, but this year many are not returning to their seasonal jobs because of the virus

“There has been the challenge of recruiting essential seasonal harvest workers,” a spokesperson from the British Apples and Pears Assocation, which represents apple producers in the UK, tells HuffPost UK.

While some producers have managed to recruit local British pickers to help with the harvest, others may suffer from a lack of staffers from mainland Europe who are unable or unwilling to travel to the UK under the current restrictions.

British farmers need around 70,000 workers to work jobs typically picked up by migrant workers, says the British Growers’ Association. Some of the producers HuffPost UK spoke to suggested the British work ethic doesn’t always compete with the attitude of pickers from mainland Europe, who they say are more willing to work longer days with fewer breaks.

Setting aside that controversial debate, British pickers new to the job do require training and an easing in period – time out from frontline picking that is likely to impact productivity and, by extension, lead to a hit in sales, farmers say.

Growing a crop of apples requires a lot of work and care, including knowledge of the size of fruit and colour, attention to detail all the way from orchard to the cold store, through to the pack house and packaging,” says Smedley.

The industry has invested £100 million in streamlining production - but the crucial issue of finding pickers remains
British Apples and Pears
The industry has invested £100 million in streamlining production - but the crucial issue of finding pickers remains

Even if producers find the staff, there’s the issue of social distancing. Packing apples, says Smedley, may be even tougher than actually picking them.

“We’re conscious of how we’re going to maintain distancing in the pack house,” he says. “We’re looking at that at the moment, trying to put extra equipment in. We’ll try and work with less people in the building.”

Once the apples are out of producers’ packing rooms, they need to be found homes. The Apples and Pears Association aren’t expecting a supply chain problem now that restaurants, and most other buyers, are in business again, but it does warn that Bramley apple processors have already been affected by the loss of prepared meals contracts.

The industry is arguably well-placed to ward off the challenges presented by Covid-19: apple and pear producers have cumulatively invested £100m in new technology over the past decade to streamline production processes, although that investment hasn’t necessarily gone towards resolving workforce issues.

“We undoubtedly are facing a challenge, but we are ever optimistic about our future,” say a spokesperson for the association.

“The NFU (National Farmers Union) is working with the government on key issues like the seasonal workers permit scheme which will ensure a source of crucial harvest labour in the future.”

Another challenge is the cancellation of major seasonal events which were big revenue drivers. Attempting to gain back some visitor footfall, producers are staging smaller events instead to encourage visitors to spend directly.

“The majority of our sales are through the two-day National Apple Festival that we host here,” says Sara Smile, operations manager at Brogdale fruit farm in Kent, which is also home to the National Fruit Collection.

“Due to the current situation we cannot put on any of our major events. That is why we will struggle with the harvest.”

Smile has organised a range of events to compensate, including family picking days, cooking demonstrations, cider tastings, produce stalls, pick-your-own days and have-a-go juicing. “Visitors can enjoy a day on the farm and take home some of our 2000 varieties of apples and pears,” she says, adding: “[they’re] all pre booked and socially distanced with numbers limited.”

Relying on local buyers to sustain business has become more important than ever, say producers, who insist weaknesses in the supply chain can be overcome by encouraging people to shop locally, rather than relying on food that has travelled far.

This may be boosted by a growth in people buying direct from farmer or wholesale suppliers, rather than supermarkets, or signing up to fruit and veg box subscriptions – buying behaviour that boomed in early lockdown.

Brogdale says it’s also grateful to local restaurants, such as Macknade food hall, which has branches in Faversham and Ashford and has kept up its weekly orders of fruit, helping sustain the orchard’s income through the pandemic.

“Brogdale is hyper local to us – just down the road – and we have collaborated in the past on other projects,” says Rosie Collins, marketing manager at Macknade – in turn, she says, it has connected Brogdale with Wasted Kitchen, which uses waste from the food halls to produce dishes to be sold in-store and delivered around Faversham, Whitstable, Canterbury and Herne Bay.

As costs increase and demand remains unstable, the message seems to be this: to ensure the future and diversity of the apple industry, think – and buy – as locally as possible, whether that’s visiting your nearest orchard or farm shop, subscribing to that wholesale fruit and veg box, or eating out to help out at restaurants that source locally, too. Ultimately, every little apple helps.