At this time of year, Matt Stanton would normally be preparing to welcome 70 to 80 Romanian seasonal workers to harvest asparagus on his family farm in Kent, south-east England. This year, he is expecting seven.
A similar problem faces farmers in wealthier countries around the world as the coronavirus outbreak curtails international travel, disrupting established annual flows of hundreds of thousands of people from poorer nations to harvest food.
Travel restrictions have cut seasonal migration to a trickle just as farmers gear up for the harvest, at a time when stockpiling and a sharp economic downturn have piled pressure on to many countries’ food producers.
“We’ll just have to do what we can . . . if you can’t harvest, you will lose this year’s crop,” Mr Stanton said.
The problem is acute in Europe, where the UK, France and Germany are all scrambling to recruit local workers, including students and those laid off from ravaged industries such as hospitality. But the timing of the outbreak has left the farming industry little scope to establish new avenues of recruitment, while some potential workers may balk at manual labour.
Laura Wellesley, research fellow at Chatham House, said: “One of the big concerns is that we will see significant labour shortages along the logistical supply chain. If we see a shortage of migrant workers, then you’re looking at a real supply shortage.”
In France alone, 200,000 workers are needed in the next three months to bring in crops such as strawberries in the Loire Valley and asparagus in Alsace, according to the FNSEA, the national union of farmers. About 800,000 are needed for the whole harvesting season; normally about two-thirds come from abroad, including central and eastern Europe, Tunisia and Morocco.
Germany usually relies on roughly 300,000 seasonal workers a year from eastern Europe, a majority from Romania and others from Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary, according to the DBV, the German farmers’ association. In the UK, some 70,000 to 80,000 workers arrive annually, many from Romania and Bulgaria, to pick fruit and vegetables.
But Europe’s Schengen area has barred external visitors for 30 days. Within the bloc, Germany announced on Wednesday that seasonal workers would be barred until further notice. Austria, Hungary and other countries have closed land borders, blocking overland routes from eastern Europe.
Even where workers can travel, a fraction of the usual flights and buses are available, while many are afraid of contracting coronavirus or of being prevented from returning home when their work is finished, farmers said.
Christine Lambert, head of the FNSEA, said the union had already received reports of French farmers ripping up and discarding fields of asparagus because of a lack of labour to harvest it.
And it is not just a European problem: the US has limited seasonal farmworker visas from Mexico and its farmers face similar problems, while China, where the outbreak began, is also grappling with labour shortages after restricting internal travel.
“Every first world economy is used to workers coming from other economies to pick their fruit and veg,” said Ali Capper, who chairs the horticulture board for the UK’s National Farmers’ Union. “What you’re talking about is a major societal shift.”
Echoing second world war rhetoric, the UK’s Country Land & Business Association is calling for a “land army” of new farm workers. Germany has appealed to the unemployed to work on farms, while the French agriculture minister Didier Guillaume issued a rallying cry to what he called France’s “shadow army” of workless.
“I tell them: join the great army of French agriculture. Join those who will allow us to eat in a clean, healthy, sustainable way,” he said on BFM TV on Tuesday.
Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of the UK work placements charity Concordia, said a call for applications had yielded 8,000 expressions of interest, including journalists and a professional rugby player. Another recruiter, Pro-Force, is in talks with hotel chains that have suspended operations.
But many workers in richer countries are unaccustomed to tough physical labour often carried out for the minimum wage or for a piece rate. Luc Barbier, a representative of the French national fruit producers’ federation, said his farm needed 80 workers each season but had to hire about 150 to deal with attrition.
“We start at 6 or 6:30am and work eight hours outside come rain or shine,” he said. “Lots of people come for a few days and then quit. Some have even told me they’d rather collect unemployment [benefit].”
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Governments are beginning to get involved in recruitment: France’s unemployment agency has created a website to link farmers with workers and has told people they can still receive benefits, or earn money if they are furloughed, while bringing in extra income from farming. The UK government has declared farm workers to be “key workers” amid the pandemic and is in daily contact with farming unions.
As the peak harvesting season looms, the problem is becoming more pressing. Some UK strawberry farmers are removing polytunnels usually used to hasten ripening while they search for additional labour.
Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, said: “If [the crisis] drags on into the summer, it can be a huge blow.”
Xavier Mas, a strawberry farmer in south-west France, is struggling without a family of Moroccan workers who were barred from helping this year. He said: “We can manage for now, but if anyone quits or the weather heats up — causing the fruit to ripen more quickly — it will be a catastrophe.”
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and Daniel Dombey in Madrid