British turkey rules the roost at Christmas, with close to nine million gracing the dinner tables up and down the country. Whether you buy from a supermarket, a butcher, or a local farm, British producers are trusted to deliver; and in normal times the answer to the question would be ‘as many as we can grow, process, and sell’. However we are not in normal times.
The problem is that we do not know if we will have the workforce this year. Historically, and in the absence of UK labour (regardless of level of pay), producers have brought in EU labour to slaughter, dress, pack, and dispatch our Christmas centrepiece. Under post-Brexit immigration policy bringing in new non-UK labour is considerably more difficult and costly, and pretty much impossible for a job expected to only last up to twelve weeks.
There is a possible solution in the form of the Government’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), and yet it does not cover anything outside of edible horticulture. This is not a competition between say, picking strawberries, and one of the most cherished celebrations of the year because we should be able to have both. Now that we have control of our borders why are we short-changing ourselves? We have work that needs to be done in order to deliver British turkeys (and geese), to British households, for a British Christmas. The Government must expand SAWS now.
It would be irresponsible to grow more birds than can be slaughtered and processed, which is incredibly frustrating when the demand is there for quality British products. If we cannot meet demand then it is likely that, in a bitter twist, we will see turkeys from EU countries on our shelves this Christmas. Expanding SAWS is a tiny policy change that has no financial implication for Government coffers, but it would make an enormous difference to the businesses – large and small – that produce seasonal poultry.
We have talked previously about the critical mass of the poultry meat sector and how excessive cheaper imports could create a two-tier system thereby increasing the cost of production per bird. Prices rise as productivity drops, and this scenario is as true for the seasonal farmers as it is for year round producers. If we lose that critical mass of seasonal production then it is very difficult to see how it could be recovered.
Yet all we hear from Government is ‘Bah! Humbug!’