Daffodil growers were forced to let nearly 300 million flowers rot in the ground this year due to a lack of pickers caused by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
Farmers are warning that if the critical labour shortage is not solved by the government before next year’s harvest, many will stop growing one of the nation’s favourite flowers.
Cornwall supplies nine out of ten of all daffodils grown in the UK after large-scale commercial operations were set up in the late 19th century to benefit from the mild climate.
But this year 274 million stems were left in the ground due to a lack of pickers, leaving the £100 million industry in crisis.
The figure represents 20 per cent of the entire crop and has left its growers threatening to pull out if more government support is not forthcoming.
Derek Thomas, MP for St Ives, West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, said the unpicked crops also represented a possible loss of £1 million in VAT revenue.
He told the Commons that the government needed to expand its post-Brexit seasonal agricultural workers scheme (Saws) to cover flowers as well as food crops, and to extend its current six-month window by three months to cover the daffodil season.
Thomas said: “It is time for the Home Office to take the opportunity to demonstrate its support for British farming. Our farmers do not yet know if they will be given access to foreign workers through the seasonal agricultural workers scheme in just 14 weeks’ time.
“There is an urgent need to secure a workforce to harvest our daffodils.”
Vegetable growers have seen the six-month visa scheme for migrant workers provide a lifeline to their businesses, although some say there is still a shortage.
Saws was capped this year at 30,000 migrant workers but was recently extended to allow an extra 5,500 poultry workers to come to the UK for three months until Christmas after warnings from the meat processing industry of a shortage of turkeys.
Producers say British people no longer want temporary work in the fields.
Daffodil pickers are paid on a piece rate, but farms will make that up to the minimum wage if they do not collect enough. A good picker can gather about 1,600 bunches a day, earning £20 an hour, which is more than double the minimum wage.
Rob Halliday, Cornwall National Farmers’ Union chairman, said some growers were considering no longer planting daffodils if a solution was not found.
He said: “We have got a big daffodil industry in Cornwall, and growers could grow 50 per cent more than they are producing. In the next two years they are looking at stopping if they cannot get the staff.
“It is not that they want to pull out. They offer good rates of pay, but they simply cannot get people to do the work.”
Groups of migrant workers from eastern Europe have traditionally made up the core of the thousands of pickers needed and would start picking daffodils in early January.
In 2020 the government launched the Pick For Britain scheme, with the aim of recruiting 70,000 to help with the summer and autumn harvests, but it was quietly scrapped this spring.
One farmer reported that of the 300 people recruited as pickers, only one was still working after three weeks.
Varfell Farms in Penzance, Cornwall, is the biggest daffodil producer in the world and grows about 500 million stems a year, but it needs about 700 staff to work at the farm to keep up with demand.
Earlier this year Alex Newey, the owner, said: “Frankly, the people that we’ve had to come and do this work, the locals, may last a day or two days, but they certainly don’t last two or three months.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We will always back our farmers and growers and ensure that they have the support and workforce that they need, with this year’s extended seasonal workers pilot operating in support of the edible horticulture sector.
“We are continuing to monitor the needs of other sectors, including ornamentals, to ensure they are met, with food and farming businesses also able to employ EU nationals with settled or presettled status to help meet their labour demand.
“We will also be leading on an upcoming review of automation in horticulture, which will cover both the edible and ornamental sectors in England.”