Horticulture: blighted by Brexit

“Seedlings” by sk8geek is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

You may have already seen the story that Plants Galore in Newton Abbot, Plymouth and Exeter will be giving away £100,000 worth of stock because of Brexit.  WCB had also been sent a press release from the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) about a recent visit by Brexit-backing MP for South East Cornwall, Sheryll Murray, to specialist propagators and suppliers of plug plants – Kernock Park Plants in Saltash.

We’ve already written extensively about the impact of Brexit on a wide range of industries so it came as no surprise that horticulture is being hit as hard as farmers, cheese and cider makers, wine businesses and retailers, to name just a few.

But it was the combination of Plants Galore’s desperate solution to their staffing shortages and the blithely tin-eared quote from the MP in response to the appeals for government help (of which more later) that prompted us to dig deeper.

Plants Galore/Grown Direct:

It’s important to remember that people involved in this sector are often driven by a passion for growing living things every bit as strong as that felt by farmers for their crops and animals. Certainly, Matt Pollard, who is a manager at Grown Direct, the nursery business behind Plants Galore, clearly cares a great deal about the plants he now feels forced to give away because he does not have the experienced staff needed to prune them and take cuttings to grow on for next year’s stock.

“The sad thing is that I planted them originally and watched them grow. I just had to let them go while there’s still life left in them,” he said, “otherwise they are just going to die.”

Why has Brexit been such a problem for the business?

“We employed European workers who used to come to us every year for two or three months. They were really experienced and we had relied on them for years. But because of Brexit we can’t do that anymore and we’ve lost all that expertise. Some went back because of Covid and haven’t returned. And why would they? You hear all these stories of border guards being unnecessarily aggressive towards foreigners and you have to ask yourself – would I want to go to a country where I might get arrested, even for a short while?”

Matt listened to the story about the Polish lorry driver imprisoned and deported for not yet having his papers completely in order, despite having lived and worked in the UK for six years..

“We are desperate for hauliers. What have we gained from that hostility? Where has it got us?”

I asked Matt if he felt that the government and DEFRA had thought through the implications of Brexit and were ready to handle its impact.

He sighed.

“Look. A lot was promised in the EU referendum campaign… most of it made up lies: “Everything will be fabulous” “Life will be better”. It really was not true. Every business you can think of has been hit or is just stuck because of staffing – farmers, growers, retailers, manufacturers. Every business needs to make a profit to survive but Brexit means higher costs, a higher burden of red tape and a huge amount of extra time spent on stuff we just did not have to do before and it’s just going to push up prices.”

What will Matt do about stock next year?

“Well. We will have to import those plants from the EU… and that is not a simple process. The paperwork is really difficult and then you have the problem of the unpredictability of when stock will actually get to us. It could be sitting in containers or trucks for days at a time, held up at the port or customs. We’ll have the extra stress of not knowing whether cuttings will get to us in time.”

What would Matt say to George Eustice, if he had the chance?

“That’s not really my remit. That’s for the board. But I’d say that government really needs to think about and focus on the businesses themselves and understand that we need it to be really easy to employ experienced workers. Why can’t we offer them fixed-term contracts? They’ll do the job and go home again. We’ve done everything we can to make jobs with us attractive but at my last recruitment day I had four people instead of the usual thirty… and they all had other offers anyway and were checking us out to see if we offered something better, so there’s no guarantee we’d get them, even if they did have the relevant experience. ”

HTA quote NFU figures on seasonal jobs in horticulture:

“The NFU figures that there are 80,000 seasonal job roles in horticulture satisfied by 60,000 workers (this is due to the same workers moving onto a different job role once one temporary position has finished). Half of those positions are filled by EU citizens resident in the UK and half by workers migrating in to the UK and returning home after the job has finished. These figures are based on data collected from a number of different organisations across the UK (crop associations, NFU, producer organisations, large growing businesses), but there are no official figures published.”

Provision for staff to work with ornamental plants is not included in the seasonal agricultural workers allocation scheme. This despite ornamental horticulture and landscaping being an industry worth around £24 billion, and providing getting on for 600,000 jobs across the UK.

Kernock Park Plants is an independent Cornish plant producer who have been in business for over 40 years, producing more than 13 million plants a year for sale in the UK, Ireland and Europe. They operate from their seven-hectare site at Pillaton near Saltash.

Bruce Harnett, Managing Director, has much to say about the impact of Brexit, but stresses that he has no intention of being a ‘Remoaner’. He’s not complaining for the sake of it. He urges government to make changes so that he can grow the business. He’s clearly angry and frustrated but he makes his points calmly and succinctly.

“Import and export was absolutely second nature to us. It’s what we did. But Brexit has changed the status quo. It’s like learning to walk again. Everything now takes up so much time and resource, not to mention the cost…cost which we are having to swallow in many instances this year. I don’t think government or Defra understood at all what being a third country meant, what the impact on trade would be. Brexit is certainly not making trade any easier! Any advantages there might be, are wiped out by the costs in time and money.

“We are a plant propagator. We have to be able to continue to import tissue culture and cuttings from all over the world including the EU. You can’t just say that we’ll suddenly do this all ourselves. We need significant investment in research and development in this country; investment in new technologies. Government needs to put its money where its mouth is. Small and medium-sized companies cannot be expected to replace what we’ve lost.

Due to the nature of the year with COVID and people changing jobs, we’ve had higher staff turnover than we are used to. Some of our European workers went home last year when allowed and did not come back for fear of not being able to return due to COVID restrictions. Due to the season nature of our business, we need to be treated like food growers; we need access to seasonal staff schemes.

“We tried so hard to prepare, to ensure we could ship product to the EU and Northern Ireland but export is now exceedingly complicated and fraught with difficulty. Shipping plants is like shipping explosives or firearms, the phytosanitary checks and procedures are so complex. Every time we send out a shipment, we’re concerned if we’ll have a new issue to consider. There is no way to train or prepare for the eventualities we see arising every week…they are always different!

“The trouble is that the rules are not black and white. They are open to interpretation so a consignment might get through one week and then fail the next with the same paperwork and checks in place. When an import inspector at Heathrow interprets a rule one way and wants to destroy a box of cuttings, it throws a huge spanner in the works. Keeping on top of all this just means a huge overhead and frustration through the supply chain.”

“All export is complex, but ironically it’s actually more difficult to get items into Northern Ireland than mainland Europe. There’s a whole raft of supplemental paperwork to ensure we aren’t attempting to get product into the EU via the back door. The government has to find a way to sort trade out with some pragmatic arrangement…trusted member status or something like that. We’ve just got to get this bureaucratic burden reduced somehow. And there are constant changes in legislation so it’s very difficult to keep up.  We aren’t even at full Brexit yet! In January, we will have border control posts and inspections in the UK, too. Another issue to contend with!”

Unfortunately, most of the changes this industry needs government to make are not consistent with being a third country…  as we now are. The only way to return to frictionless trade is to rejoin the single market. There is no pragmatic solution to be had which will clear the obstacles put in this industry’s way by the Brexit deal Johnson and Frost crowed about at the end of 2019. And Bruce is right…we have not even experienced ‘full’ Brexit, yet.

Brexit-enthusiast and ERG member MP Sheryll Murray said of her visit to Kernock Park Plants:

“I was very impressed by their large operation producing such beautiful plants.  I would like to thank them for the informative visit. This first-hand detail is particularly useful in my role on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.”

Not sure that fills anyone with confidence or indicates whether she really heard what Bruce had to tell her, despite the clarity with which he expressed the very same key issues to me. For now, Brexit blight looks to be endemic.