The Government is preparing to launch a Land Army-style “Pick for Britain” campaign to prevent crops rotting in fields, The Telegraph understands, after ministers were urged by farmers to consider deploying Army reservists.
A nationwide initiative is expected to be launched within weeks to encourage anyone from university students to laid off hospitality workers to pick fruit and vegetables in the “national interest”.
The Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is also believed to be discussing with the Department for Work and Pensions the possibility of directing job seekers towards seasonal work.
The campaign carries echoes of “Dig for Victory” and the Women’s Land Army, the two major national campaigns launched during the Second World War in order to keep the nation fed.
It comes amid fears that British crops are now at risk of rotting in the ground due to severe shortages of seasonal labourers from eastern Europe as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Minette Batters, the President of the National Farmers Union, said: “We are very much looking at a campaign to ‘Pick for Britain’, inspiring people to come up in the national interest to pick these crops.
“There needs to be a message of certainty from the Government going to growers emphasising how important it is that we grow more of our fruit and veg.
“For the time being it is going to be very difficult if not impossible to bring anybody in, so we have to incentivise and empower a bespoke national campaign to motivate this ambition.
“The Government is absolutely committed to doing this, but it has to be industry-wide with all of us pushing it. It’s essential that this is kicked off now.”
A Whitehall source confirmed that ministers are looking at plans for a national campaign, although they were unable to say when it would launch.
The farming industry has warned that travel restrictions and the disruption caused by the pandemic mean they will struggle to recruit the 80,000 workers needed for this season’s harvest, even as supermarkets continue to face shortages.
In response, three of the UK’s larger labour providers have launched a ‘Feed the Nation’ campaign, with at least 10,000 people, including former military personnel, already signed up.
University students, many of whom have been forced to return home due to campus closures, have also been encouraged to become fruit pickers during their long summer vacation.
However, industry leaders have this week warned ministers that a national campaign must be launched urgently if the sector is to secure enough workers in time for the harvest season.
During a conference call on Wednesday, the Environment Secretary George Eustice was urged to explore “every option” to ensure farmers have the staff they need.
With 477,000 people applying for Universal Credit in just nine days, it is hoped that the huge demand for seasonal labourers could provide a solution for many people who have been laid off during the crisis.
But if farmers are unable to secure enough staff, industry leaders have raised the possibility of using Army reservists, with soldiers and military planners already heavily embedded in other parts of the UK’s response to the virus.
There are also calls for the Treasury to draw up a support package for farmers, with sources indicating that the Government may need to underwrite crops to guarantee farmers’ livelihoods if harvests fail.
Speaking after the call with industry leaders, Mr Eustice said on Wednesday evening that the Government was now looking at additional ways to support farmers.
“We need to mobilise the British workforce to fill that gap and make sure our excellent fruit and vegetables are on people’s plates over the summer months,” he added.
“There are already brilliant recruitment efforts underway by industry and I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up.
“We will also be looking at other ways to make sure farmers have support they need ahead of the busy harvest months, while also keeping workers safe and protected.”