Dairy co-op Arla warns UK labour shortage will hit food production

The co-op says the problem, partly driven by Brexit and Covid-19, is pushing up food prices and forcing farmers to cut production

UK dairy co-op Arla Foods warns that a chronic shortage of suitably qualified farm workers is hitting dairy production and forcing up prices.

It says the situation will worsen unless action is taken and calls on the government and agriculture industry to do more to attract talent into the sector.

A survey of 541 of Arla’s 2,100 UK farmer-owners in this country participated in the survey found that 80% of farmers looking for workers have received ‘very few’ or ‘zero’ applications from people with the right experience or qualifications.

Brexit, and the end of free movement for EU workers, the aftermath of Covid-19 are among a number of factors behind the problem, says Arla, with more than three-fifths (61.3%) of farmers finding it more difficult to recruit now than in 2019.

The shortage of people is already affecting production, the co-op adds: milk volumes are down by around three percent now compared to last year.

Arla’s products include Lurpak (Image: Nom & Malc)

And the survey finds that a small but significant number of farmers have already responded to staff shortages by reduced by cutting the number of milkings (4.3%) and/or reducing the size of their herd (6.0%). Many more say they will take these steps (6.9% and 6.8% respectively) or leave farming altogether (11.9%) in the next year if nothing changes.

Arla, which has called consistently for specialist roles like herd manager to be added to the Shortage Occupation List, is now engaging with the new Institute of Agriculture and Horticulture on the problem.

It has welcomed the focus on improved skills and qualifications for farm workers, as well as recruitment into the industry, but says more government action is needed.

UK managing director Ash Amirahmadi, said: “Addressing the labour shortage and the implications this could have for food security is vitally important. Now is the time for all of us, across government and industry, to work urgently and collaboratively to shift outdated misconceptions about farming and bring new talent into the industry.

“That’s why I’ve written to the secretary of state today calling on him to accelerate the review of the labour market promised in the Food Strategy White Paper, and for him to commit to a new cross-departmental strategy to bring talent into food and farming, making it a career of choice for people from all backgrounds. This will need to include on-farm skills and training, but will also address teaching in schools, the understanding and attitudes of careers advice providers, support for people wanting to change career, and a marketing campaign aimed at promoting careers in our industry.

“If we don’t act now the current shortages of people will only get worse, jeopardising production on farms, undermining our food security and further fuelling higher prices for consumers.”     

Arla’s research covered around a quarter of all the co-operative’s farmers in the UK, who in total make up around 30% of all dairy farmers.  It was conducted during May 2022.