Farms were nearly a third short of workers in September, a new survey by the NFU has revealed.
The farming union has warned that the supply chain could face "significant disruption" next year unless the government takes action to prevent a shortfall of workers for agriculture.
The NFU’s labour provider’s survey reveals that there was a 29% shortfall in seasonal workers for horticulture businesses in September, raising the average shortfall for the year to 11%.
The survey also shows that the number of returning workers to farms, a critical source of the workforce, fell to 16%, its lowest level all year. The returnee rate had been as high as 65% in January.
Farmers are feeling the impact on farm as the cost of food production is rising through higher wages, reduced picking rates and, in some cases, non-harvesting of crops.
The survey follows the release of a report which warns there is less than a year left to put a new seasonal workers scheme in place, or risk "catastrophe".
“The 2019 crop – and with it the future of the industry - is at stake,” said growers’ organisation English Apples and Pears chief executive Steven Munday.
NFU Deputy President Minette Batters said the British horticulture industry is "critically important" to British agriculture, providing vital jobs and value to the economy.
She said: “As an industry, we have the opportunity to enhance our home-grown food production and increasing the amount of fruit and veg we grow should be a central part of that.
“The situation for farms has become a lot more challenging and farmers are already experiencing the serious effects a lack of workers can have on a business, with some being forced to not harvest crops.
“If the industry continues to see serious shortfalls in the availability of workers, the knock-on effects for the supply chain and the public could be serious.”
'Vital for food production'
Ms Batters said access to a competent and reliable workforce is vital for British food production, especially in a time of record low levels of UK unemployment.
“There remains a window of time between now and May 2018 for the Government to take action to prevent a shortfall and the ensuing impacts,” she said.
“The simplest measure would be a tried and tested seasonal agricultural workers scheme open to non-EU workers to top-up the access we have now to EU nationals.
“Post-Brexit, we need to see an immigration policy that is based on fact and business need and recognises the importance and seasonality of workers across all skill levels.”
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Theresa May suggested a seasonal agricultural workers scheme could be reintroduced after Brexit.
May said the migration advisory committee is looking at Brexit and its impact on farming, and whether or not it will be necessary to reinstate it.