Strawberries: my positive case for the EU.
From age sixteen I worked weekends and holidays. A pub kitchen, a fertiliser company, a hand car wash, a building site. But I was eighteen when I got my first real job.
For the largest part of the year before I went to Uni I worked at a strawberry farm in North Yorkshire. It was a simple operation, two irrigated fields in Gate Helmsley with a garden shed and an awning to sell from. There was a third field in the hills at Thixendale to meet demand.
Almost all of what we sold was strawberries. You could pick your own but most people bought plastic punnets of strawberries that we’d picked for them. The workforce was a mix; some people like me, some older British skilled farmers, and some Eastern Europeans who lived in caravans on the site.
A typical day started at 7am. I’d either pick strawberries at the farm until 10am or drive a van up to Thixendale with two others and pick strawberries there until the van was full at around 1pm.
Strawberries go off much more quickly than you think.
If you pick a strawberry at 7am it’ll be struggling by the evening. So at Gate Helmsley we put all of our strawberries in a refrigerated truck body within 30 minutes of being picked. If they’d come down from Thixendale they went in as soon as the van got back.
Once chilled we packed strawberries into 1lb punnets and sold them, cash only, from our shed, until 7pm. Some of us kept picking until then too. At 7pm we’d see how many strawberries were left in the fridge.
People buy more strawberries when it’s sunny. If we’d had good weather there’d only be a few hundred punnets in the fridge, just enough to sell to very early customers the next morning. If it was cloudy, we might have as many as 3 tons of strawberries in the fridge. We’d work on the packing line for as long as it took to fill the van with them.
At 3am an unlucky person’s alarm would ring and they’d drive the van full of strawberries one hour down the road to Hull fruit market. By the time they started work after lunch the strawberries could be at a market anywhere from Hull to Hamburg, via overnight ferries to Holland or Denmark.
I loved working at the strawberry fields. It was hard work but it was outdoors and with good people. We’d often have a beer after work and about twice a summer we’d organise a Bishop Wilton World Cup where the farm workers would all come to our village for a kick around and a pint. In various years Ajka, Lucas, and Macek came to our village agricultural show too, crashing back in at my Mum and Dad’s house at around 3am before a painful 7am start.
That was 2003. In 2004 the EU expanded to include Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe. A lot changed.
The strawberry fields at Gate Helmsley secured planning permission and the owners started building a farm shop and café. We planted rhubarb, currants, blueberries, cabbage, broad beans, peas, and asparagus so that fresh produce would be available for as much of the year as possible. Matthew, the boss and a friend, struck deals with local farmers and food businesses to stock the place with meat, cheese, preserves, pies, bread, and even Yorkshire wine and beer. He hired dozens of local people to look after the crops, run the café and the kitchen, and stock and manage the shop. And he hired some of the Eastern European workers to stay as permanent staff and work all year round.
I’d planted strawberries in February 2003 but I was at University in 2004 and there was no-one in Bishop Wilton to replace me. The year below me at our tiny village school had just two people in it; Peter worked at East Riding sacks and Jane’s interest in agriculture was limited to horses (she works at Aviva in York now). Chris could still drive the tractor but at his age he couldn’t pull seedlings out of their box and secure them in the rotating planting clamp as quickly as necessary. He drove and I planted. Without me, and with no-one local to replace me, I assume that he drove the tractor while a Polish person planted the strawberries.
With some of the visiting workers now staying all year round Matthew bought a small house in Gate Helmsley. Even in a small hamlet in North Yorkshire a house like that costs at least £175k today and an agricultural worker earning just above the minimum wage and with variable hours could never afford that. The cheapest property to rent within 5 miles of Gate Helmsley today costs £185/week — far more than an agricultural worker could reliably earn in the Winter.
I worked a few more summers at the Balloon Tree farm shop. I enjoyed it, I could earn over £300 in a 60 hour week, I stayed with my parents so I didn’t pay rent, I got a good tan, and I was proud to help people buy brilliant Yorkshire produce. I stopped when I finished Uni, moved to Leeds, and started working full-time as a graduate.
I’d have loved that job for five years but it wasn’t a job that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
So what does this have to do with the EU?
We packed all of our strawberries in 1lb punnets. If they were sold in Hull they could be exported to the EU without repacking to 500g punnets. That’s because of EU laws that the UK helped write.
I learned about tariffs when I saw that our strawberries never went to Norway, outside of the EU, because of the tariffs they put on our products.
I learned about the confusion that’s leading many to vote Leave. Almost every day customers would complain — they’d read it in the paper — that Brussels had banned pounds and ounces. Yet they walked out of our shop with a pound of strawberries and half a pint of cream that they’d paid for in British Pounds. They still do and they still will when I‘m old.
The people I worked with — Ajka, Victor, Lucas, Macek, and many more — stopped being guest workers and became workers. If they weren’t happy it was easier for them to find other jobs. If they were treated badly it was easier for them to get help. If they fell in love, with Britain or with a Briton, they could stay or take their love with them.
They learned English quicker, drank in the pubs more often, came to agricultural shows, and never got in any trouble. I’m friends with some of them to this day.
Macek worked for a year before returning to Northern Poland to start a business. Lucas stayed for a year, went home, got married, and started a family in Warsaw. He now works for Play; a largely British-owned mobile phone company. Ajka stayed for longer and came back more frequently but in the end she too moved back to Slovakia where she is married with children.
All three love Britain because of the opportunity we gave them; an opportunity their parents were denied by Russia and that some in Britain would want to deny them today. They are successful well-educated people, fluent in English, who either work for British companies or buy from British companies like Tesco Poland or Vodafone Czech Republic within the European Union. We improved their lives and they improved our lives.
I am so proud as a Yorkshireman, a Briton, and a European that we welcomed these people as equals as they emerged from the disaster of communism. I will be incredibly sad if we step back now and leave the rest of the EU to welcome them as equals in the future.
The farm shop business that I saw built in my youth has grown and grown. It provides delicious local food to the people of Yorkshire. It generates hundreds of thousands of £s in taxes each year. It helps pay for the public services we enjoy in the UK. It adds to the offer that brings more and more tourists to Yorkshire. It diversifies the rural economy away from subsidised farming towards high-value production and services.
Of course this all could have happened outside the EU, but being in the EU made it easier and more likely.
Few of the people who drive past, or pop in, or collect a salary know that. Why would they? Almost all of the UK’s taxes, spending, and laws remain the responsibility of the UK government. That is the beauty of the EU — it supplements without replacing the nations who are members.
What about the problems?
So far all of the changes I’ve described have been positive but I’m not daft enough to think that change doesn’t also cause problems.
Traffic has increased around the Balloon Tree farm shop in the past decade as more people wait to enter and exit the car park. That was a main reason why it took years to secure planning permission to expand.
In the nearest town, Stamford Bridge, the old single-lane bridge on the main road causes longer tailbacks than it once did. Plans to expand the bridge to two lanes have been discussed since I was a child but in the face of considerable local objections are no closer to happening today. The Balloon Tree’s business rates have helped fund a cycle lane from the town to Gate Helmsley that has helped a bit, but most people prefer to drive.
Many people in Bishop Wilton, the village where I grew up, lament the change brought about by agricultural labour being done by fewer and fewer people. Bishop Wilton’s farms have closed, driven out by high house prices and local complaints about the smell of manure they were bought by farms from outside of the village to form larger more efficient units. With them went the petrol station, the agricultural engineers, and a short-lived furniture factory. The village shop and post office teeters on the edge of viability and the pub survives only by selling meals to tourists. A village that housed 1200 people at its agricultural peak now houses less than half that number. It rejects growth and then laments the changes that its self-imposed stagnation brings.
The village has robustly refused to build enough new housing to maintain its population. That means that all of my generation — even those with children who would love to return — have left for the cities.
A 2-bedroom bungalow in Bishop Wilton costs over £200k today. I can buy a 2-bed home in central Leeds for half that. There is no way that a young family doing agricultural work could ever afford this. No homes are available to rent for miles. I know of only two friends who still work in Bishop Wilton. One is the village school’s head teacher and her husband runs his Dad’s recording business. They both live in York and commute back to the countryside every day.
None of these problems are caused by the EU beyond the fact that the EU has enabled economic growth.
It is that growth which will pay the pensions of Bishop Wilton’s ageing population. It is that growth that would let us build better roads and more homes now if we wanted. And yet many people will vote to leave the EU because of the consequences of having chosen to do neither.
The people I grew up with will overwhelmingly vote to Remain in the EU. We are the ones who will pay for the pensions and benefits older generations have earned. Outside of the EU we will find it harder to pay the bills we have inherited.
But I know that the majority of East and North Yorkshire will vote to Leave. I desperately hope that they will think again.
Leeds and Birmingham, where I work now, rely on talent from all around Europe and the world to succeed. That talent is attracted to the UK because we treat Europeans as equals, welcome them into our culture, and integrate the best of their culture.
Our businesses, overwhelmingly employing British people, thrive because they can sell to, and send people to, businesses and people all over the EU, without barriers. They thrive in the same way as the strawberry farm I worked at over a decade ago has, within the EU.
Some people hope that Leave will bring back some of what Britain has lost. I will vote Remain because we have gained so much more.