February has been a busy month for Heb Veg with both national and international policy changes giving us pause for thought.
At the beginning of the month, Fortune Magazine carried an NBC News article which detailed the precarious nature of the Californian food supply chain. Broadly, changes in immigration law have seen a rapid depopulation of the migrant labour that is responsible for picking fruit and vegetables. So catastrophic has been the change, that it is estimated that more than $13 million of fresh fruit has been left to rot in two Californian counties alone. Even the tactic of raising wages and increasing benefits has done little to encourage the filling of vacant posts, and the overall result is that Californian farmers have seen a 50% decrease in incomes since 2013.
Unfortunately, this gap in the jobs market is being mirrored in the UK. The TV magazine programme Inside Out South-West featured an article on the on the labour shortage in and around Plymouth where there is a 35% vacancy rate in agricultural jobs. Again, even increased wages and staff benefits were doing little to tempt the under 25’s who simply found the job of picking and packing too arduous.
The deficit in migrant labour is replicated in Scotland, and the Sunday Herald recently carried an article that farmers in Fife had to discard vegetables that would have fed 15,000 people for a year, because of a critical shortage of 4000 agricultural labourers. These jobs had traditionally been filled by EU migrants, but the fall of the Pound against the Euro and the uncertainty caused by Brexit has seen vegetables being left to rot in the fields and farmers sink into further debt.
The reason that we should all be concerned about this is that at present matters relating Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing are devolved to Holyrood, who in turn receive funding and implement policy from the EU. However where this area and its associated funding will reside after Brexit is one of increasing conjecture. Indeed the issue has become so thorny that Michael Gove refused to speak to the Scottish farming press during his recent visit to the bull sales, leaving it to the SNP’s Fergus Ewing to pronounce himself a champion of Scottish farmers. Even within the Westminster bubble, MPs who are scrutinising the government plans for the agriculture and farming industry post-Brexit are demanding the replacement of EU subsidies, but government ministers refused to be drawn.
Farmers would see the perfect storm should grants and subsidies not be replaced following withdrawal from the EU, and insufficient labour to harvest the fruits of their hard work would result in already heavily indebted farms pushed to the point of bankruptcy as well as significant cost increases passed on to the consumer.
That said there are funding opportunities available for those who are willing to search them out. Throughout February, Heb Veg has been working closely with the Business Development team at Business Gateway in Stornoway, and we have been awarded a grant from the Comhairle and Scape Reinvest Communities Fund. Unlike their counterparts at Rural Payments, the staff were easy to engage with and promptly to replied to electronic communication. The entire process from outline enquiry through to access of the grant took under four weeks, with all the wrinkles being carefully explained and ironed out in that time.
The result is that not only do our polycrubs continue to go up, and we hope that all four will be installed by the second week of March, but we are now able to buy in seed for our project. This year will very much be one of testing to see what does well, and what is too sensitive to the Hebridean climes. We will be starting with the basics such as carrots, various cabbages, and a variety of salad leaves. However, we will also be testing things like courgettes, peas, tomatoes, and even strawberries and garlic.
We have also been fortunate to get a tree grant over the line, courtesy of the Viv Halcrow and her team at the Woodlands Trust. Courtesy of Danda Gillies, we have created earthen bund shelterbelts, and by the end of February, we hope to be planting close to a thousand trees of which nearly half will be fruiting. The will include Dog Rose, Elder, and Crab Apple, as well as various others which will mix well with chutneys.
Additionally, we have begun discussions for turning the same shelterbelt into a habit for pollinating insects with another charity by way of seeding a wild-flower-meadow mix, and we hope to provide more details of that soon.
As we saw at the beginning of the article, there are various geopolitical circumstances that which are likely to see pressure put on both existing crofting businesses and subsidies. Combined with a lack of available labour this will cause the base cost of fresh fruit and vegetable to rise exponentially. The way to insulate ourselves against this is to consider growing your own. Any small parcel of land can be considered, and if you hope to use your croft you may be able to access the existing grant system up to March 2019.