It’s 6am, but the sun’s been up for hours. We’re in a field, looking forward to a jolly day in the great British outdoors, surrounded by friendly faces and with as many free strawberries as we can eat.
Better still, we’ll be paid to be here – earning nearly £700 a week, according to the Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey. After consulting the fruit picking industry, she recently issued guidance to Job Centres to encourage more British people to fill vacancies on UK farms.
She wanted to show what fun seasonal fruit picking can be.
Well, I’m keen to promote the idea to fellow Brits, because it’s something we seem to have forgotten: currently, about 95% of the 85,000 people who pick fruit here are from elsewhere in the EU. Why should they have all the fun? But with all the uncertainty around Brexit, and steep declines in migration from the EU, strawberry-loving Brits may soon get a look in.
I started looking for jobs picking strawberries in the first week of Wimbledon. I looked online, made some calls, and somebody said, “You should try Rectory Farm, outside Oxford.”
The owner, Imogen Stanley, seemed baffled and amused to hear from me. I gathered that she doesn’t receive a lot of interest from English pickers. Hearing my native accent, she wanted to put me in the farm shop, but I insisted that I want to pick fruit – and she yielded.
I would work, she explained, with a team of Bulgarians and Romanians. Most work on Rectory farm from February to November, planting and harvesting many crops, and several come back year after year, because they like the farm’s relatively small size, and family ethos. Larger farms can have as many as 1,000 seasonal workers, sometimes more, with three or four individuals sharing a room for months on end, but at Rectory Farm workers live in mobile homes tucked behind the farm buildings, with rooms to themselves.
Regrettably, Imogen couldn’t accommodate me, so I asked if I could bring a tent. She doubted I would have any strength to put up a tent after a day of fruit picking, but agreed so long as I make it very clear to you, dear reader, that workers on her farm do not live in tents.
Meeting Imogen in the field at 6am, I’m surprised to find I am not the only Brit. By strange coincidence, another chap signed up on the same day as me (the first in five years, I later learned).
“I’m Richard,” he says. He’s been working as a teacher, but was recently made redundant. Amazingly, he’s not here because of McVey and her wonderful vision of fruit picking. He came up with the money-spinning idea all by himself, after remembering a visit to this very farm with his mother, years ago, as Pick Your Own customers. How hard could it be?
Imogen smiles, waves across rows of strawberry plants, knee high between rows of straw, and introduces us to our supervisor. “Andrea will show you what to do,” she says.
To begin, Andrea gives each of us a sheet of tiny stickers. Mine bears a number, 656. “Bring the trays to me and I will weigh them and check the quality. Don’t forget to put your number on the tray, or I won’t know it’s yours and you won’t get paid.”
Then she grabs a plastic sledge, covered in fruity slime, and traipses through thick straw towards a nearby strawberry plant. This she gently but firmly flops about, as if tousling the hair of a beloved but unruly child, to reveal the scarlet fruit beneath. She snaps them off neatly, leaving precisely one centimeter of stalk on each one. “If it’s not one centimeter, it’s no good,” she warns.
She ignores the unripe strawberries, whether orange or patched with white, and picks another red one, about the diameter of a pound coin. “Too small,” she says, chucking it into the sledge. “It’s rubbish.”
Another, bent and puckered, goes the same way. “It’s deformed. Rubbish!”
One that is perfect except for a teeny hole in its side, hallmark of bird or slug, follows it into the sledge. “Rubbish!”
But the strawberries that she places carefully inside the punnet are perfect. Yum!
She leaves us to it.
I stand, inhale the healthful air. The sky is blue. A light easterly breeze flutters the leaves in a nearby row of silver birch. Wood pigeons coo softly.
Then I lean forward at the waist, and with both hands I flop about the leaves of the plant as Andrea demonstrated. One strawberry hangs from its stem exactly beneath me. I snap it off, but the stalk is too long so I use both thumbs to shorten it.
Perfect, if slightly time consuming.
I resolve to break exactly the right length first time – easier said than done, as I am to discover, because this variety of strawberry, Symphony, is soft as a water-filled balloon, and bruises = rubbish.
Another beauty hangs a little to my right. Still folded at the waist, I swivel my hips to reach it, then swivel back to reach a juicy berry to my left. I turn them in my hands. The first has a blemish, so I swivel still further to my left to drop it in the sledge (“rubbish!”) then execute a 150 degrees turn at the hips to place the good one in a punnet.
My phone buzzes: it’s my wife, asking how I am getting on, and conjecturing that I might find the work “rather meditative”.
I wonder about this. Picking perfect strawberries and avoiding rubbish requires focus. That can be restful, but not when you ache.
I start to think about my pilates teacher. What would she say about this? Would she congratulate me on finding a new way to work on my core strength? Or tell me to stop at once?
I stand upright, arch backwards, and look around me. The Romanians and Bulgarians have wizzed along the row of fruit, far ahead of Richard and me.
Most squat, so I do the same. But after a while, my knees start to ache, so I rest them for a moment on the embanked straw before me. Ouch: scratchy. And oops: I squish several ripe strawberries by accident.
Squatting, crouching and sitting cross-legged in the straw all turn out to be welcome alternatives to the pain of standing and bending at the hips. But each is also, in its own way, deeply uncomfortable – because whichever position I adopt, I still have to keep turning to the left (for the sledge) or right (for the punnet). And I have to keep moving along the row, shuffling from one plant to the next, with the result that straw infiltrates both my shoes and my shorts, and scratches my knees raw.
At 6.48am, less than an hour after starting, I look up to see one of the Bulgarians, Yovcho, striding towards Andrea bearing three trays full of strawberries. That’s 24 punnets. In the same time, I have filled just six.
Call it unskilled labour if you like, but Yovcho’s speed is making me look like a chump.
I decide to stop inspecting the fruit before placing it in the punnet, and within a short time I am taking my own tray to be weighed.
Andrea stands at the scales with a colleague, Nikoleta. Sharing responsibility for the quality of what we pick, they pull out anything below par (“rubbish!”) and send us back for more.
Dismayingly, three of my first eight punnets turns out to be rubbish. Worse, Andrea says I’ve not done a good enough job cleaning rubbish from my row, so I have to go back and remove anything red that’s misshapen, or too small – lest it go mouldy and spoil the picking for the next person to work this row.
Take it from me, clearing rubbish from a row you’ve already picked is not entirely a pleasure.
I get another text from my wife, asking if she should bother washing strawberries before eating them. Truthfully, I reply that I can’t see why she’d bother – but that’s before I visit the solitary portable toilet, which is less luxuriously appointed than (say) the Ritz. I make a mental note to change my answer when I get home.
Back at the weighing scales with my next trays, I ask the women how they ended up working here.
“That’s something I ask myself every day,” says Nikoleta, deadly serious.
Her first job outside Bulgaria was in Dubai, but she felt that men there have distasteful attitudes towards single women from Europe. She moved to Athens, then got a job picking fruit in Norfolk, on a much bigger farm. “The first day, I just cried. It was so hard. I didn’t want to stay. But I didn’t have enough money to leave.”
Having little alternative, she became good at it, and started to earn more than the minimum wage. Finding her skills in demand, she moved here five years ago. She much prefers this farm, but doesn’t pretend to enjoy the work. Nor does either woman enjoy eating strawberries any more.
They’ve been shocked by British attitudes. “When they hear we are Bulgarian and we work on a farm,” says one young woman, “they speak to us as if we are retarded.”
She thinks we’re in for a shock after Brexit. Experienced pickers from overseas will just stop coming. It’s happening already. Last year, the seasonal workforce fell by 17%. This year, two-thirds of British farms have vacancies.
After all, the pound isn’t worth what it was. Before the referendum an hour on the minimum wage here was worth approximately Euro 2.00 more than it is today. That’s a loss of Euro 16 every day, or Euro 80 each week. Can you see how it might seem more lucrative to pick fruit somewhere else?
“British people are lazy. They don’t want to do this work,” says Andrea. “Would you?” asks Nikoleta. I pause, wondering how to answer.
“No – no way.”
After five hours picking in the field, Imogen suggests we move elsewhere, because 28 degrees C is too hot to pick this particular strawberry variety.
We trudge to polytunnels, where a firmer variety, Century, has been planted in gro-bags at the height of a tabletop. The polytunnels are hotter, but the work is much easier now. Which means it pays less – £2.10 per tray here, compared with £3.40 in the field – and we have to work much faster to earn as much.
By the day’s end, my thumbs feel like I’ve been driving nails into them, my knees are scratched raw, my neck and lower back are sunburned. I’m so tired I can hardly speak. Has it been worth it?
Richard too is desperate for data. “This is back-breaking work, and I want to know if it’s worth coming back,” he says.
With new workers, on the first day, Imogen promises to pay the minimum wage (£7.83/hour). But if they can’t pick enough to earn that back, she has to let them go. “For people living in Oxford, the minimum wage isn’t really enough anyway,” she says. That’s why she prices the work to incentivise fast picking.
Andrea, who has been keeping a tally of everybody’s work, shares the numbers with me.
When you take out all the rubbish I picked, my five hours in the field produced just six and a half trays, at £3.40 each. That’s £22.10. Yovcho, whose capacity for work is monstrous, earned £49 in the same period. Results from the polytunnels, later in the day, are similar. But I’ve done slightly better than Richard, which pleases me. I tried really hard to pick well.
Whatever the industry told Ms McVey about “nearly £700 a week”, nobody here earns more than £550. And there have to be easier ways to do that.