Migrant Farmworkers Whose Harvests Feed Europe Are Blocked at Borders

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PARIS — When Europe tightened its borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, France’s biggest farmers sounded an alarm: The workers they rely on from other countries to harvest much of the nation’s food could no longer make the trip.

The concern is widespread. In Britain, farmers are struggling to find people to pick raspberries and potatoes. Part of Germany’s prized white asparagus crop risks rotting in the ground. And in Italy, over a quarter of the strawberries, beans and lettuce ripening in coming months may lack harvesters.

European governments have declared food supplies a matter of national security as millions flock to supermarkets to brace for prolonged home confinement. But border lockdowns have immobilized legions of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe who toil in fields from Spain to Sweden, forcing a rapid rethink of how to supply labor to those farms.

France’s agriculture minister this week trumpeted what sounded like a surreal call for hairdressers, waiters, florists and others temporarily unable to work at their mothballed businesses to head to the nation’s fields and start picking.

“I’m calling on this shadow army, on the many men and women who want to work,” Didier Guillaume, the minister, said on BFM television on Tuesday. “We have to produce to feed the French.”

ImageThe Romanian workers whom Malte Voigts employs on his asparagus farm arrived before the borders closed.  
Credit…Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Europe isn’t about to run out of food. Truckloads of pasta, tomatoes and other goods continue to cross the continent, with bottlenecks at some borders. But the widening clarion call to citizens underscores an uncomfortable reality: Without low-cost mobile labor from Eastern Europe, the breadbaskets of Europe’s wealthier economies risk losing their harvest.

Malte Voigts grows the creamy pale asparagus celebrated in Germany as “white gold” and harvested each spring to much fanfare. But as the days grow warmer and stalks begin peeking from the mounds of earth on the farm he runs in Kremmen, 30 miles northwest of Berlin, he and neighboring farmers are struggling with limited numbers of seasonal workers and more stringent housing conditions to allow for social distancing.

Normally he relies on a force of about 170 mostly Romanian workers for the asparagus harvest. Right now, about half that number are on hand, most of them having arrived before the Czech Republic and Hungary blocked travel through their countries.

Germany relies on 300,000 seasonal workers to plant and harvest produce throughout the spring and summer. Like many growers in Brandenburg State, where about 24,000 tons of asparagus is raised each year, Mr. Voigts said he would need more people for the high season, which starts in late April.

Hoping to fill the gaps, he put out a call for help on his company’s website. “Hundreds of people have called in, even a mother, saying her two teens could help out — which we don’t allow,” he said. “I almost get goose bumps.”

Thousands of Germans have also logged on to a national website offering to help farmers or nurseries needing workers. The jobs pay the German minimum wage of 9.35 euros (about $10.25) an hour — the same wage paid to foreign harvesters. But with only 16,000 applicants so far, the agriculture minister has urged the government to also grant refugees who have not qualified for a work permit the right to help in the fields.

Until this week, seasonal workers who could bypass travel restrictions and get to the German border would be allowed in. But on Wednesday, farmers faced a further squeeze after the Interior Ministry announced that Germany would bar all seasonal workers from entering the country, citing concerns by the public that they could bring the coronavirus with them.

In France, the government said Thursday that 40,000 people had already applied on a website that matches willing hands with farms that need them. France’s major supermarket chains have pledged to source produce only from French farms, part of a government-backed plan to support farmers.

But with 200,000 field and dairy hands needed across the country, attracting enough French nationals — most of whom have never experienced the muddy work of picking, pruning and milking — seemed to be a herculean task.

Even if they come, people must be trained and have endurance to uproot vegetables, pluck strawberries or collect peaches quickly and in large quantities without damage.

Mr. Voigts, the German asparagus grower, said that while the offer of help from citizens was a relief, he was realistic about how many people would be able to master the job.

“Many people think it is easy to cut asparagus, but once they try it, they realize how difficult it really is,” he said. “It’s not fun.”

Véronique Marchesseau, a cattle breeder in Brittany, said the government would do better to pay out-of-work people to help care for the children of workers who already know how farms operate. “Not everyone can do what we do,” she said.

Critics also questioned the wisdom of recruiting untrained citizens to gather crops as governments impose strict quarantines to prevent the coronavirus’s spread.

“In less than 24 hours, the minister of health tells us to stay at home to save lives, the prime minister tightens sanctions and the minister of agriculture tells the French to go to work in the fields,” Julien Odoul, a regional councilor for the far-right National Rally party, wrote on Twitter, referring to the French government’s appeal. “This government is confined to the kingdom of amateurism.”

That hasn’t stopped a call to arms that is spreading across Europe.

In the Spanish province of Huelva, Europe’s biggest producer of blueberries, the main farming union opened a recruitment drive for residents to make up for the expected loss of about 9,000 seasonal workers from Morocco, locked out by border closings.

Spain’s Almería Province, host to some of Europe’s largest greenhouse farms, is experiencing a boom in demand from supermarkets. Farmers there have a more steady supply of workers because the greenhouses operate year-round, allowing for a resident work force to live on-site, albeit in basic conditions.

Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s coronavirus crisis, faces a steeper hurdle. Around a quarter of Italian food products are gathered by 370,000 foreign seasonal workers, mainly from Eastern Europe, according to Coldiretti, the country’s biggest agriculture association.

The country needs at least 50,000 workers through spring. Around 2,000 people have applied to substitute for the seasonal workers. To attract more, Coldiretti says, the government must modify wage conditions to make it easier for students, retirees or the unemployed to receive pay while working in the fields.

Farms in Britain had already confronted a labor shortage as Brexit discouraged migrant workers from arriving, and few British nationals were willing to take the jobs.

In previous years, Britain’s agricultural sector has relied on about 27,000 people, and food manufacturers about 116,000 — year-round workers from European Union states. At peak harvest, a further 75,000 non-British workers flooded in.

Farmers will face more dire prospects as travel is cut off altogether to contain the epidemic, said Sarah Boparan, operational director at HOPS, a recruiter that typically brings in workers from Romania, Bulgaria and other European Union countries.

“We urgently need a U.K. labor force who can help harvest crops to feed the nation,” she said.

Despite the chaos, Ms. Boparan said she had seen at least one bright spot. In the past, her agency attracted interest from only about 20 British people a year to work on farms. As of earlier this week, hundreds of responses had rolled in.

“It’s been flabbergastingly fantastic,” she said.

Liz Alderman reported from Paris, Melissa Eddy from Berlin and Amie Tsang from London. Raphael Minder contributed reporting from Madrid, Emma Bubola from Rome and Eva Mbengue from Paris.

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