Cornish farming businesses could find themselves being forced to cut back production if they are unable to get access to the labour they need to harvest their crops.

That’s the message that came over loud and clear from a survey of some of the county’s biggest horticultural businesses.

The survey found that seasonal labour was a crucial part of the agricultural workforce. Defra generally quotes a figure of 1,221 seasonal workers being employed in Cornwall (taken from the June 2016 census) but the survey results indicate the actual number is more than twice that, with an average of 2,754 seasonal workers in the county over the first three months of 2019.

Demand does fluctuate, with most workers being required at either end of the year. The total number of workers required is expected to have risen to 3,597 by 2020, with recruitment staying at roughly the same level of around 2,970 over the last three years.

This reflects a national trend which indicates there’s already a shortfall of more than 20 per cent in the number of workers arriving in the UK, and the fear is that without a robust seasonal workers scheme in place the situation will become increasingly difficult after Brexit.

Jeremy Best grows strawberries at Mitchell Fruit Farm near Truro. He said: “It is absolutely vital to the future of our businesses that we get access to the labour that we need. The Government must take our concerns seriously and tell us what they intend to do to make sure that people who want to come to the country for seasonal work are able to.”

The current political uncertainty and growing economies in countries like Romania, Poland and Bulgaria – where most seasonal workers come from – means coming to the UK for work is not such an attractive proposition as it once was.

Technology which could help the situation, such as robots that can pick fruit and veg, are being tested but it is likely to be a decade or more before they can be used routinely in fields.

The NFU was disappointed by recent recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to exclude agriculture from its list of jobs in short supply and that need to be filled by non-UK workers post-Brexit.

Farming was omitted from its review of the Shortage Occupation List (SOL) but roles like choreographers and artists were included. During the consultation, the NFU provided information about a range of critical jobs that many non-UK workers perform on farms at all skill levels, such as dairy herdsmen and poultry technicians.

NFU President Minette Batters said: “The NFU is staggered that farming has been ignored in this way and that the MAC has failed to recognise the needs of our industry. We urge Government to look carefully at these recommendations and add the roles we desperately need.”

Quite apart from the economic impact if one of Cornwall’s most important industries were to be affected by labour shortages, there is also the question of the standards to which the food that might replace Cornish produce is grown.

Although most of the attention is focussed on chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef, welfare standards for people harvesting fruit and vegetables in developing countries for sale in the UK should be at least as much of a concern.

Jon Perry, NFU Cornwall county chairman said: “Here in Cornwall we produce food to some of the highest standards in the world and it is vital that these are not lost. It is imperative that any future trade deals, including a possible deal with the USA, do not allow the imports of food produced to lower standards than those required of British farmers, produced in ways which would be illegal here.”