The number of seasonal workers coming to work on British farms has dropped 17%, leaving farms 'critically short' of people to harvest fruit and veg, a new survey by the NFU shows.
The survey, based on a total seasonal workforce of 80,000, shows that there is a current inability to recruit sufficient numbers to meet growers' needs during the busy harvesting season.
There were more than 1,500 unfilled vacancies on British farms in May alone.
The survey, covering the period January to May 2017, shows the number of labour providers unable to meet the requirements of the farms they supplied rose four-fold.
The proportion of returnees, which form a sizeable and dependable source of workers, has also dropped significantly throughout the first five months of the year, falling from 65% to 33%, a drop of nearly 50%.
Farmers are calling on the government and newly appointed Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove to provide reassurances to growers that there will be clarity on how farms will access labour post-Brexit.
Mr Gove, speaking to BBC Radio 4's Farming Today programme, said: "There's an absolute commitment from the Prime Minister and from all of us in cabinet that when it comes to shaping new migration policy, the economy comes first."
'A lack of clarity'
NFU horticulture and potatoes chairwoman Ali Capper said 'a lack of clarity' regarding the UK's future relationship has contributed to the reduction in workers.
"Farmers and growers need to know how the government will deal with the need from industries that rely on seasonal workers and the NFU is calling for reassurances farmers will be able to source a reliable and competent workforce both now and in the future.
"Without that, this trend is likely to continue and at this stage in the season any further tightening in the workforce will hit hard on farms.
Miss Capper said 'returnees are absolutely vital.'
"Their past experience and technical ability makes them so valuable and losing them is a big concern.
"This robust survey represents 30% of the total seasonal workforce and it is crucial government understands the importance of seasonal workers to an industry that provides the raw ingredients to feed the nation."
Another survey released today shows that the price of British summer fruits and salad could 'soar' by up to 50 per cent if the UK cannot gain access to EU workers after Brexit.