Call to help fruit growing industry

Councillor Leigh Wilson voiced his concern after a meeting with Castleton's owners
Councillor Leigh Wilson voiced his concern after a meeting with Castleton's owners

A local politician is seeking the return of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.

Councillor Leigh Wilson’s call follows his meeting with the owners of a family-run fruit farm near Laurencekirk.

Ross and Murray Mitchell have operated Castleton for more than 20 years and it is now one of the biggest commercial growers in Scotland.

The Mearns SNP councillor has been aware of the issue of seasonal labour shortages and requested a meeting with the business to discuss the extent of the problem.

The Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) allows fruit and vegetable growers to employ migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania as seasonal workers for up to six months at a time.

The scheme was scrapped in 2013 in an attempt to reduce the net migration figures to the UK.

There has been a backlash from the agricultural sector as growers live with the reality of not being able to attract sufficient labour and crops being left in the fields.

The dry summer the country is currently experiencing has added to the difficulties facing growers as fruits are ripening earlier than would usually be expected. For Castleton, this has come at a cost of 100 tonnes of wasted produce.

Mr Wilson said: “Castleton is undoubtedly a huge success story for the area and their produce is widely distributed in the local economy.

“I knew there was a problem but I was shocked to hear the extent of it. Being forced to leave 100 tonnes of perfectly good crop to rot because of a shortage of labour is simply scandalous and has a subsequent effect on the returns than Castleton are able to make.

“The situation is clearly unacceptable and I am calling on the UK Government to stand up for local farmers and reinstate the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.”

During the course of the meeting it was revealed that Castleton had seen a drop of around 20% of seasonal workers since the SAWS scheme ended with the cumulative cost estimated to be around £350,000 for the business.

Ross Mitchell said: “Without a strong seasonal workforce we wouldn’t be in business.

“The message for a need for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme is getting through to some MP’s but doesn’t seem to reaching the very top. There is no time to wait, a decision has to be made before people are forced out of business.

“The UK soft fruit industry has been a great success story and it would be a shame to undermine this.”