Dairy farmers are warning that a chronic shortage of workers is affecting milk production and fueling food price inflation, and are calling for urgent action to prevent the situation from worsening.
Eight in ten farm owners looking for workers said they had received few or no applications from people with the right experience or qualifications, in response to a survey by Arla Foods, the UK’s largest dairy cooperative.
Farmers blame Brexit and Covid for their recruitment problems, saying the combination of the end of the free movement of EU workers and the aftermath of the pandemic, along with other economic factors, is making it more difficult to find suitable staff.
Food producers have long warned that massive agricultural labor shortages have left unharvested crops lying in the fields, healthy pigs on farms have been killed due to a lack of workers in meat processing plants, and disrupted the food supply chain.
In April, MPs from the parliamentary committee on the environment, food and rural affairs reported that the sector had half a million vacancies last August, representing one-eighth of all positions.
Nearly two-thirds (61%) of dairy farmers reported that it was more difficult to recruit workers than in 2019, as part of a survey of about a quarter of co-op members. In total, Arla’s 2,100 farmer owners represent about 30% of all dairy farmers.
Milk production in the UK has already been affected by labor shortages, the study finds, and milk volumes are currently around 3% lower than last year.
A small but significant number of farmers said they had responded to staff shortages by reducing production by reducing the number of milkings (4.3%), while some had reduced the size of their herds (6%) and weighed in on larger numbers of farmers to take these steps.
Nearly 12% of dairy farmers are considering abandoning farming altogether next year if nothing changes.
The industry is calling on the government to add specialist positions, such as herd manager, to the UK’s Occupational Shortage List – an official list of skilled occupations where there are not enough UK-based workers to fill vacancies – to reduce the size of to increase the pool of workers.
“Addressing the labor shortage and the impact it could have on food security is vital,” said Ash Amirahmadi, Arla UK general manager.
“If we don’t act now, the current shortages of people will only increase, endangering production on farms, undermining our food security and further increasing consumer prices.”
Amirahmadi is calling on government and industry to work together to change attitudes and increase the appeal of agriculture among a new group of people.
He has written to the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs calling for an acceleration of the labor market review promised in the White Paper on Food Strategy.