BOSTON, England — For four decades, the prime agricultural land that Sarah Pettitt’s family rented near its home produced bumper crops of vegetables, including purple sprouting broccoli destined for the shelves of upscale British supermarkets. But when post-Brexit migration rules kicked in, curbing recruitment from Eastern Europe, a vital stream of workers dried up in this area close to Britain’s eastern coastline.
Ms. Pettitt said she had little choice but to cut production by a fifth.
“If you can’t get people to come and harvest it, you’re not going to take your pound notes out of your back pocket and chuck them in the fire,” she said as gray clouds hung over the 100-acre expanse of flat, fertile land that her family routinely rented from a local farmer but has now given up.
Two years after Britain left the European Union’s economic area, ending the ability of the bloc’s citizens to automatically work in Britain, the effects of Brexit are unfolding across the economy. One of the clearest is a shortfall of around 330,000 workers, mostly in less-skilled jobs, including transportation, retail and hospitality, according to the Center for European Reform and U.K. in a Changing Europe, two research institutes.
That dearth of workers has hit the food and farming sectors particularly hard. Last year, 22 million pounds’ (about $27 million) worth of fruit and vegetables went unharvested, according to a survey by the National Farmers’ Union. In the survey, 40 percent of respondents said they had suffered crop losses, and more than half said they had cut back production.
Ms. Pettitt, for one, would welcome more Poles, Latvians or Lithuanians to Boston — “that would be fantastic,” she said. But in the years since Britain voted to quit the European Union, many have left the country, and Brexit is making it hard to recruit replacements. And harvesting crops, she said, is a job many Britons have long avoided.
Brexit has meant “a massive drop in immigrant workers,” according to an assessment by an agricultural recruiting group.
At the time of the vote in 2016, Brexit supporters were chafing at what they felt was a loss of sovereignty to the European Union, notably on control of immigration. Opinion polls now show that Britons’ sentiments have begun to shift against Brexit, as business owners cite difficulty in finding workers, as well as thorny trade issues and what they describe as onerous paperwork requirements.
In Boston, where residents strongly supported Brexit, there is little evidence that attitudes have changed toward the European Union. But people like Ms. Pettitt are coming to realize the effects of Brexit on their own lives and livelihoods.
Located 160 miles north of London, Boston has became a prime example of Britain’s 21st-century population shifts.
When a group of former Communist countries joined the European Union in 2004, Britain was one of only three of the bloc’s nations that immediately opened their labor markets to the new work force. At the time, Poland’s economy was suffering from high unemployment, and hundreds of thousands of Poles moved to Britain, including highly motivated young people with good qualifications.
With many jobs to be had, particularly in farming and food processing, Boston swelled in size after 2004. But the influx of immigrants put pressure on schools and medical services, stoking a local backlash that eventually contributed to a pro-Brexit sentiment in the town a decade later.
But with the onset of Brexit, the situation was basically reversed — now workers from countries like Poland could not come to Britain to work without a visa. At the same time, the economies of countries in Eastern Europe improved, making jobs there more attractive and luring some — even those who had the right to stay in Britain — back home.
“It doesn’t seem to be as advantageous for some East European employees to come over and try and make a living because it’s more competitive to be back in their own country,” said Simon Beardsley, the chief executive for Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce, a business group, referring to agriculture, food processing and hospitality.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, even more drifted home, and some of those who stayed anyway moved away from farm work.
Replacing them is tough.
Employment agencies in Britain still recruit many workers from abroad. But Ms. Pettitt, who once employed as many as 22 people, said that even with immigration from faraway places, including the Middle East and Asia, there are not enough workers for her to sustain her previous production, especially at peak times.
She was finding it difficult, she said, to find people — including Britons — who were willing to work on farms, or who were as motivated and reliable as those from Eastern Europe.
“They come with all the best intentions on the Monday, moan and groan about the fact that they had to arrive at 7,” she said. “They’d stay, but you’d not see them the next day. It’s all too hard or too difficult or too uncomfortable.”
Although Britain’s government offers visa initiatives for seasonal agricultural workers, they are intended more for shorter stays — suitable for fruit picking — and for employers who provide places for workers to live temporarily. Ms. Pettitt’s farm does not have accommodation for staff, and she needs employees who can work for the majority of the year and who therefore live locally.
Sitting in her office at her farm, Ms. Pettitt said she understood the sentiment behind Brexit. As a critic of European Union farming policy, she said, she supported the idea in principle, although she voted against Brexit for fear that it would cause years of upheaval.
She now pays a team of eight Eastern European workers who have worked for many years in Boston and chose to stay, post-Brexit. They can earn an average of £30 an hour — three times the minimum wage. Increasing those high pay rates at a time of huge inflation was not an option, Ms. Pettitt said.
Nearby, Naylor Farms employs about 75 workers, mainly from Poland, who have also been in Britain for years with the right to stay. “We are very lucky — we have a good core staff,” said Simon Naylor, the farm’s chief executive, who is nicknamed the “cabbage king” in the area because of his farm’s large crop of the vegetable.
Yet while he said his farm was not currently facing a shortage of workers, he is keeping an eye on the future.
“When they stop working for us, we will have to think about whether we carry on doing what we are doing, or do something easier in terms of staffing,” Mr. Naylor added. He is already branching out from traditional agriculture with a project to extract plant protein from vegetables for food.
In the meantime, the departure of Eastern Europeans in recent years is also changing the landscapes of towns like Boston, which served as the inspiration for the name of the city in Massachusetts after settlers from this area moved there.
In the town center, several shops that offered Eastern European products are closed. In his home by St. Mary’s Church, the Rev. Stanislaw Kowalski, a priest to the Polish community, said there were now fewer Poles than when he arrived in 2015. About 700 to 800 people attend weekend Mass in Boston and two nearby towns, he said — roughly 200 to 300 fewer than in earlier years, although still a significant congregation.
Among those employed before Brexit was Ieva Klavina, a Latvian who worked on Ms. Pettitt’s farm after arriving in Britain with a university degree in 2011 — and staying for five years.
“It was good money compared with Latvian wages,” she said, speaking from Riga, Latvia’s capital. She recalled how, at 22, she earned in one week as much as her parents did each month.
“It wasn’t easy — we were working sometimes eight hours, sometimes 10 hours a day,” she said. “We were working in summertime, and it’s really, really hot, and we were working in wintertime, and it’s really, really, cold.”
Two years after the Brexit referendum, she returned to Latvia for an operation and then found it easy to find work there and build a successful career. She is now an international affairs specialist for the Latvian state police and owns an apartment in Riga.
Ms. Klavina said she understood the reasons behind the Brexit vote because Boston had struggled to cope with its swollen population. And given the better opportunities at home and the obstacles created by Brexit, working on Britain’s farms is no longer particularly attractive to young Latvians, she said.
“Young people think differently to how I was thinking when I was 22 years old,” Ms. Klavina said. “When I tell people in Latvia about my experience, they say, ‘Oh, my God, you really did that?’”