Labour of our fruits

If we want seasonal produce we need to support seasonal workers

On a fine August day, picking raspberries is a pleasantly tiring way to spend a summer. The fruit can be reached, albeit from thorny bushes, with less back-bending than strawberries require. You make your way along your row, under the polytunnel, towards a colleague coming in the other direction. The atmosphere is relaxed, although you are aware that this is piecework, and that you need to make efficient progress.

Most of the crop on this farm, Barons Place in Kent (the Marks & Spencer and Waitrose labels show the name Marion Regan), is going to supermarkets. You learn quickly that you can fill your punnets only with model specimens. A raspberry with prominent bobbles may taste fine, but is a monstrosity in the eyes of the giant chains, which demand fruit as compact as golf balls. Soon, you learn to find the desired fruit with unerring speed, boosting your daily earnings to over £100.

The punnets go to the packing shed, where, in a steady temperature at least 10°C lower than outside, workers sort and label them. Today's raspberries are Octavia, at their peak in late July and early August. Barons Place grows more than half a dozen types of both raspberries and strawberries, ensuring that there are crops at their peak at all stages of the season. The policy also enables shops to mix up their offerings. Tulameen raspberries, flavoursome but fragile, will get the premium-brand labels, along with Driscoll Jubilee strawberries. The farm also has "class 2" fruit, which supplies the wholesale and catering trades. In carefully sequenced stages, lorries arrive, collecting produce that will be on the shelves the following day.

The pickers and packers are mostly Romanian and Bulgarian agricultural students. The government has restricted the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which licenses operators to bring over suitable people for farm work, to applicants from these countries. The scheme will end altogether in 2010: a worrying development for fruit farmers.

The government reasons that Bulgaria and Romania have joined the EU, and that there are plenty of migrant workers in Britain. But migrants are shunning agricultural work. The pound has depreciated, opportunities are improving at home, and, if migrants do come, they prefer to work in cities.

These factors may not carry much weight at the Home Office - not when set against a reduction of some 16,000 in the "immigration" figures. If the government can boast this populist statistic, it will not care that it is confusing genuine immigration with seasonal working. But we should care. If bien-pensant foodies want seasonal produce, they have to accept a seasonal workforce. Unless we plan to subsist on imports from Spain and the Netherlands, British fruit farmers deserve our understanding and support.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop