Millions of pounds worth of strawberries, raspberries and other soft fruit is likely to go to waste this summer as farmers warn they will struggle to find anyone to pick it.
They are blaming new immigration rules that have slashed the numbers of seasonal agricultural workers allowed to enter the country by a third.
But many migrants are also being put off by the falling value of the pound, while their own countries’ economies are also taking off.
Britain’s soft fruit industry has grown at seven per cent per annum in recent years, and is now worth £220 million.
However, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) fears that growth could be halted by a severe lack of labour, with fruit simply left to rot in the fields.
Last year an estimated £20 million of fruit and vegetables went unpicked, but this year the situation could be much worse, said Richard Hirst, chairman of the NFU.
He said: “If we have some hot weather and fruit and veg ripen more quickly, then there aren’t going to be enough people. When it’s ready you can’t just leave it in the fields.
“We are actually looking at it being much worse than last year.”
He said the labour shortage was affecting fruit, vegetable and flower farmers.
Mr Hirst blamed new rules which have reduced the number of workers allowed under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme (SAWS) from 25,000 a year in 2003 to 16,250.
The scheme has also been narrowed so that only citizens of Bulgaria and Romania can apply. Last year, 40 per cent of the allocated placements were for migrants from those two countries while 60 per cent were for non European Economic Area countries.
Mr Hirst said the SAWS scheme had run efficiently “for decades” and stated more than 99 per cent of workers, who tended to be students, returned home after the season.
He added: “The Home Office seems unable to distinguish between this type of recruitment and mass immigration.”
Many Eastern Europeans are also deciding to stay at home or work on the continent, attracted by the high value of the Euro.
Consequently specialist recruiters have thousands of vacancies.
Farmers launched a bid last week to temporarily extend the SAWS scheme for 5,000 more workers but it was rejected by the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA).
The SAWS reductions are part of a wider government bid to reduce immigration in response to fears that parts of the country, such as Boston in Lincolnshire, have struggled to cope with the rapid influx of the last few years.
The SAWS scheme is due to be phased out completely by 2010, which Mr Hirst warned would have a major impact on the horticultural industry.
He said: “We risk exporting a successful British industry abroad.”
A BIA spokesman said: “We are phasing out low skilled migration from outside the EU because we think businesses should hire those close to home first.
“Some people have told us our immigration reforms are too draconian, but we think they’re right for Britain.”
However, farmers do not believe enough British or EU citizens will be willing to work for the typical wage, which is often the minimum of £5.52 an hour.