Without immigrant workers our fruit farms would be at risk

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NOW that the spring is here and the hour has gone forward, I would like to slow things down a bit. We are in April already, and more time to enjoy and take in the breathtaking beauty of it all would be welcome.

Having wished the winter months away, it would be nice to just hold things back for the next seven months. The blossom is magnificent in the hedgerows, just like snow; with the woods now full of primroses, anemones, and the first bluebells.

The grass is growing, and our heifers at Tillington have enough grazing in front of them at last.

We can slow the rotation down now and allow the covers to grow in front of them as the warm weather speeds up the growth.

We will control the sudden burst of growth over the next four to five weeks by either taking more heifers over to assist, or shutting up some of the acreage for silage.

We have finished dirty water applications and the second dressing of fertilizer on the silage ground at Crouchlands, and it is looking good, with more growth than usual at this time of the year due to the fantastic weather.

That’s just as well, because next winter’s bought in feed is going to be much more expensive, as our contracts run out this summer exposing us to the higher commodity market prices.

Getting as much production out of home grown forage will be very important in order to minimise costs.

Our pastures should improve this year following our programme of slot seeding new grass varieties into the existing sward, we have drilled a hundred acres

- in fact all the areas we had not drilled in the last two years. With clover seed incorporated into the swards, the cattle should enjoy their summer grazing.

We are now poised to work down the maize ground and start drilling, although we have lime to apply on some fields, but all the ploughing and sub-soiling is done, and with soil temperatures rising, it won’t be long now before the first seed is placed in the ground.

We have a little less work to get through this year with reduced maize acreage, and I am more relaxed as the dry warm weather makes everything so much easier.

Young heifers will go out to grass this week at Crouchlands, closely followed by the first of the milking cows.

The cows will only be grazing for a few hours a day to start with, but will no doubt be happy to go outside for the first time this year.

Again, it is ground conditions that dictate things, and when it is this dry underfoot, everything is so easy.

We can start grazing the paddocks, increasing the grazing time as the grass grows faster, but keeping the cows in if we have a particular wet day or two rather than make a mess.

The cows have been restless for over a week, as they can smell the grass, and know that turnout is imminent.

n Having visited several soft fruit and top fruit farms in Herefordshire last week, it has become crystal clear to me that without seasonal immigrant labour, this sector would be totally at risk.

Given the tough markets, with dominant retailers and competition from abroad; massive planning issues and now government attempting to clamp down on the labour force, life is tough.

What I saw despite this, was innovation, marketing expertise, entrepreneurial spirit; with excellent management skills and positive approach to food production.

I saw asparagus being grown for a leading retailer, and rhubarb, all cleaned, trimmed and packed by an army of individuals, many of whom come back year after year.

I saw cherries trees which grow fruit out of season for a premium, apple orchards being planted for cider on a huge scale, and of course all the traditional soft fruits, plus one grower who was growing blueberries in a big way using a novel method of planting.

Some of these farmers were also involved in potatoes, chicken, sheep, and arable, turf, canary seed (!); very big businesses indeed.

On one farm there were a thousand immigrant workers employed during the height of the season, and every business I visited had caravan parks to house all these people, with camp welfare officers, recreational facilities, transport to local internet cafes and supermarkets etc.

Planning for poly-tunnels, caravan parks, reservoirs, pack houses and so on is a very big issue indeed, and some major battles have taken place.

When it comes to labour, if the government thinks that British people can take the place of immigrant labour they are very much mistaken.

Most British people do not want such work, and are either educated, trained and gainfully employed in other work, or if they are out of work, still do not have the inclination to carry out such jobs.

Again and again I asked the question about British workers, and the answer was the same.

They are not available, and quite frankly those who are told to come and work here in order to get a job are of little use.

They are unreliable, disinterested, and actually spoil the work ethic and team work of our workers.

This may be manual work of a repetitive nature, but it has to be done to a consistent high standard, with high productivity essential to keep the pack-house working smoothly 24 hours a day seven days a week in the season.

Without the seasonal workforce, and many of the supervisors and key people employed full time, these businesses would not survive.

n Listening to a leading scientist talking about genetically modified organisms the other day, I was fascinated to hear that most of the plants we grow for food, staple foods such as potatoes and wheat, are in fact inefficient, and not particularly good at photosynthesis (harvesting sunlight and turning it into starch).

The reason for this is the fact that they all developed as plants, at a time when there was a much higher level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (I know – don’t go there!).

Scientists are therefore very keen to introduce genes from plants which are extremely efficient when it comes to photosynthesis, into such crops.

One of the most efficient plants at photosynthesis is algae, and scientists believe that wheat and potato yields as well as other crops could be greatly enhanced by increasing the efficiency of the plant itself, which would not only produce more, but require fewer inputs of fertilizer and water per tonne of crop produced.

An interesting development.