Industry Insight

Skilled Labour Shortages

How automating soft fruit irrigation operation and monitoring can reduce the dependence on skilled labour.

Following the result of the European Union Referendum there has been a major reduction in the number of skilled Eastern European personnel coming to the UK to work on fruit farms. This major issue is likely to grow in significance and UK growers are looking for ways to reduce the dependence on manual labour. Higher levels of irrigation automation are an area where this dependence can be reduced significantly.

Key Facts

  • Eastern European farm workers numbers fell by as much as 29% in 2017.
  • Hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of produce has gone to waste due to lack of pickers
  • Growers concerned about the effect on their ability to provide the highest quality fruit for retailers
  • Labour costs will rise
  • More automation will reduce labour demands, particularly skilled personnel
  • More automation will increase water use efficiency and improve crop yields

The Growing Farm Worker Crisis

The weakening of Sterling against the Euro following the European Union Referendum result has made the UK a far less attractive place for European farm workers. Fewer are coming here to work.

The resultant shortage has already had a significant impact on UK growers with cases of fruit being left unpicked, or discarded due to a reduction in quality as a result of late picking. Reports suggest that hundreds of tonnes have been wasted with the resultant loss in revenue being measured in hundreds of thousands of pounds for single growers.

Whilst there are moves to allow seasonal worker status, it can’t be denied that the availability of good quality, skilled personnel from Europe is going to be a problem for the foreseeable future.

Growers are looking at areas of production that can be automated, particularly those that required both skilled and experienced personnel if crop quality standards are to be maintained.

Amongst the ranks of these skilled workers are the farm irrigation managers. This group has a wealth of irrigation knowledge and are generally responsible for the operation and maintenance of the drip irrigations systems used in soft fruit production. Alternatives to the high levels of manual attention and to the often unsociable hours that the role of irrigation manager entails is of benefit to growers and workers. Higher levels of automation of the irrigation operation, monitoring and scheduling reduce the dependence on individuals and allow people of their calibre to be reassigned to managerial or supervisory tasks associated with processes that cannot be automated.

How can Netafim help?

As the global leader in drip irrigation technology, Netafim not only designs and produces acknowledged worldwide market leading drip products, but also the control systems that allow our drippers and dripperlines to be used in the most efficient way. In addition to reducing the dependence on the manual input of irrigation managers, automation of irrigation allows water to be used to an optimum, reducing consumption and cost.

Netafim UK provide expert guidance to irrigation managers on the best utilisation of operational factors such as Rad Sum and VPD, both key in soft fruit irrigation management. We also provide training and product updates to ensure optimum use of current and new control systems.

The latest innovation, undertaken in conjunction with our WET Centre partners and NIAB EMR, is the Precision Irrigation Package. This utilizes moisture sensors in the growing media that are linked via the cloud to the control system. Water application can be adjusted to the optimum level to ensure a growing environment that can produce the highest quality fruit with the most consistency and with optimum use of the available water. Precision Irrigation Package systems have demonstrated significant yield increases bringing revenue benefits.

Using the Precision Irrigation Package results in more efficient use of water and brings clear and attainable financial benefits to growers whilst reducing that dependence on manual intervention by skilled labour.

Another innovative product is Netafim’s factory assembled drip system. This is delivered ready to be simply rolled out along the polytunnel with all the drippers, leads and stakes already fitted to the feed pipe. By using Netafim factory assembled drip, time consuming manual insertion of drippers into the pipe is eliminated. In addition to the reduced numbers of personnel required to insert drippers, the automated process within our Dutch production facility ensures that every dripper is correctly inserted and thus the possibility of human error is eliminated ensuring a leak free and reliable system.

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