Company exec swaps his Apple for asparagus and joins UK's 'Land Army'

EXCLUSIVE: Travel company exec swaps his laptop for asparagus as he joins the thousands of people signing up to Britain’s ‘Land Army’ to pick fruit and veg and keep the country fed

  • Matthew Traver, 34, signed up for the backbreaking work after his job collapsed 
  • He will be paid the minimum wage but expects to earn up to £11 an hour with a productivity bonus 
  • Farms are struggling for labour as overseas workers are prevented from entering Britain because of travel freezes

Matthew Traver, 34, a travel company executive who is working in the fields

A travel executive has told how he has joined the ‘Land Army’ to pick asparagus for up to nine hours a day on minimum wage.

Matthew Traver, 34, has signed up for the backbreaking work after his usual day job collapsed due to covid-19 and travel restrictions imposed by other countries.

‘The work I usually do with organising travel ended a few weeks ago and is unlikely to start up for a few months,’ he said.

‘Like many others, I need to have an income and applied to work on a farm.

‘It wasn’t a hard decision to make and although it’s not something I’ve done before, I am really looking forward to it.’

Mr Traver, who is self employed, answered the call from farmers for help in making sure crops are not wasted due to a shortage of seasonal labour caused by the pandemic.

More than 30,000 people have already inquired about farm jobs, with the British Growers Association saying a total of 70,000 will be needed for the entire picking season, which lasts until the end of October.

The majority of farms across Britain producing seasonal fruit and vegetables have long relied on workers from eastern Europe.

But with borders closed and travel restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the virus, an urgent call went out for people step forward to ‘feed the nation ‘ and make sure harvests go ahead as planned.

A farm worker harvests strawberries in a polytunnel. There is an appeal for farm workers

 The harvesting season for asparagus starts in mid April and continues until October

Matthew, from London, has been told he will be working on an asparagus farm in Hoo, Kent.

He will be paid the minimum wage but expects to earn up to £11 an hour with a productivity bonus dependent on the amount of the vegetable he picks.

The harvesting season for asparagus starts in mid April and Matthew has signed a contract to work until June.

If he is unable to resume his usual job, he will continue working on farms, he said.

He admits that stooping to pick asparagus spears is a far cry from his day job travelling the globe and organising adventure trips for thrill seekers.

Mr Travers works for a company called Untamed Borders which specialises in trips to far-flung places from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan, organising treks and other adventure-filled holidays.

As he is self-employed, he will be entitled to claim up to £2,300 a month from the Government’s bailout for millions of workers.

Mr Travers said: ‘ I am not longer working for Untamed Borders and saw an advert for pickers and decided to apply. No one is travelling to the places we usually go to and each country has in place its own restriction.

‘I spend a lot of my time behind a computer screen, so it will be a nice change to be outside. I also feel that I am contributing something and not just sitting at home.

‘It wasn’t a hard decision to make at all, as I wanted to get involved.’

Asparagus farmers are the first to benefit from the surge in applications from furloughed workers and others who have lost their employment due to the lockdown and social distancing measures.

Suffolk based farmer Bob Kerr said he was ‘overwhelmed’ by the response to a message he posted on social media asking for seasonal workers.

Within days he had over 400 applications to his farm in Woodbridge, Suffolk.

He usually has a team of 90 pickers from eastern Europe to work on his 300 acre farm, which also produces potatoes.

‘I put out an appeal on Twitter and got over 200,000 impressions and then the applications flooded in,’ Bob said.

‘They were from out of work builders, chefs, taxi drivers. It was overwhelming really. Lots of students applied.

‘Obviously the job picking asparagus is hard manual work and not for everyone, but I am confident I will have the numbers to work in the field.

‘It does show you that people do want to work and I just hope that we can retain them through the season.’

Mr Kerr said he is able to provide accommodation at his farm and workers will be able to maintain social distancing, as the rows of asparagus are two metres apart.

Workers start the day around 6am and depending on the conditions work for nine hours.

He admits it is back breaking work and only fit people will be able to do the job.

‘I know its not for everyone and I was able to start recruiting quite early as I could see there might be a problem,’ he said.

According to the British Growers Association, 70,000 seasonal staff a year are needed (Boston, Lincolnshire, pictured)

Workers plant crops in a field near Boston, Lincolnshire, as thousands of people applied to pick crops on farms to plug the labour shortage of overseas workers prevented from coming to the UK because of coronavirus travel freezes

A farmer drills seeds in a field near Castor, Cambridgeshire, as more than 26,000 have answered a call to arms to ‘help feed the nation’ by ensuring there are enough workers to pick fruit and vegetables before they go rotten

Another Suffolk farmer, James Lockett, said he had received numerous calls from people seeking work.

He has the required number to work on his asparagus farm, but worries that he may be short-staffed later on in the season when other crops are harvested.

The recruitment of the Land Army is being organised by three companies: Fruiful, Hops and Concordia.

The number of people willing to go into the fields has been boosted by the Government’s decision to allow furloughed workers to claim the Government allowance while working in a second job.

Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, said 70,000 workers will be needed in the harvesting season that runs until October.

He said the initial response following the appeal for a new Land Army to work in the fields had been ‘very encouraging’.

But he said:’ We are in this for the long game and only at the start of the fresh produce season.

‘It might be that workers move from one crop to another, but one worry is what happens when the lockdown is over and people go back to their usual jobs.

‘We have to make sure that farms are covered as there is no guarantee that people from eastern Europe will come over.’

The months of June, July and September will be the busiest, when fruits such as strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are picked.

The harvest season kicks off in April with asparagus. Vegetables such as lettuce and radish are picked in May.

Summer fruits are harvested in June and July with August seeing apples, pears and plums picked.

The season closes in October while many vegetables, such as cabbages and cauliflower are harvested all year round.

Mr Ward said Britain imports 50 per cent of its fruit and veg from overseas, particularly citrus fruits like oranges.

 

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