Millions of daffodils ‘will rot’ if Brexit denies UK farmers foreign workers

Millions of daffodil stems will be left to rot in the fields this spring, as growers face a critical labour shortage that they fear could spell the end of the entire industry.

Millions of daffodil stems will be left to rot in the fields this spring, as growers face a critical labour shortage that they fear could spell the end of the entire industry.

“If we can’t recruit more pickers, there won’t be a daffodil industry left. The situation is very grim,” said James Hosking, of Fentongollan Farm, near Truro in Cornwall.

Some growers expect up to 75% of their crop will be left unpicked this spring due to a lack of workers. Many smaller growers are planning to give up daffodil growing entirely, with attempts to recruit locals failing to bring enough people to the fields.

Cornwall’s mild climate and light intensity make it the heart of the UK’s £100m industry, with around 80% of the world’s daffodils grown in the duchy. Harvesting begins in the first week of January and a workforce of around 2,500 people is needed to pick over a billion stems.

Over the past couple of decades, growers have relied on eastern European labour to do the back-breaking work of picking each daffodil by hand in all weathers. The end of free movement following Brexit and Covid restrictions, however, made the 2021 spring season one of the toughest ever for recruiting workers. Around 275 million stems were left in the ground. This coming season looks set to be even more challenging.

“If only 50% is picked this spring, the following spring you’re looking at 25% of that. And that means you’re out of business,” said Hosking, who is the fourth generation of his family to grow daffodils at Fentongollan. “There’ll be no alternative but to stop growing daffodils. That’s the end of an industry the UK leads the world in.

“Daffodils are a symbol of spring – they bring people cheer and hope when the days are still gloomy. There won’t be as many in the supermarkets this spring if nothing changes. You can’t import daffodils from anywhere else – Cornwall is the only place that can grow them at this time of year. But if you can’t harvest your crop, you haven’t got a business. Full stop.”

Hosking and the owners of Varfell Farms in Penzance, one of the largest growers in the country, say they have tried to recruit locals but with very limited success. Varfell recently held an open day at the farm that was widely publicised on local social media groups and newspapers. Only four people turned up.

Hosking also struggles to employ locals. “We always have three or four local pickers, but we need 60. At the moment I have about 20 mostly people who return to us every year and who already have settled status to be in the UK,” he said.

The best pickers can earn up to £30 an hour and the average wage at Varfell last spring was £14 an hour. But outdoor working in all weathers is not proving attractive. Many farms are also remote, needing its workers to live on site. “These are seasonal jobs that cannot be mechanised and are not attractive to the local labour force,” Alex Newey, owner of Varfell Farms, said. He is expecting to pick only a quarter of this coming season’s crop due to a lack of pickers.

The government has promised to extend a visa scheme allowing farmers to bring in seasonal workers from overseas. At the moment it only applies to fruit and vegetables, with non-edible crops excluded. Kevin Foster MP, the immigration minister, however, last week told MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee that non-edible crops will be added to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (Saws).

But with just two weeks to go until picking is due to start and no formal announcement, growers say they need to start recruiting now if they are to save this year’s harvest. “If, next week, the government announces a visa scheme that includes ornamental crops, we could potentially get up to speed with recruitment by early February. At least then the industry has a future,” said Newey. “We’re hopeful it will happen, but it has to happen soon.”

“We’ve heard promises from the government before,” said Hosking. “We’re still waiting.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was contacted for a comment but did not respond.