Tomatoes, asparagus, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables are emerging as collateral damage of the coronavirus crisis, European farm groups are warning.
They say border restrictions and quarantines across the continent have created a sudden shortage of seasonal workers just ahead of the spring planting season. The workers are employed extensively in Europe’s wealthy regions for farm production, with some of the bigger countries granting short-term work visas every year to hundreds of thousands of agricultural labourers, most of them from Eastern Europe.
The high-cost Scandinavian countries in particular are worried about the labour shortages.
“We are in need of a lot of foreign workers,” Eystein Ruud, a greenhouse farm owner and chairman of the Norwegian Horticultural Association, told The Globe and Mail. “If we cannot get these workers in the coming weeks, our farmers won’t risk putting a lot of plants in the soil. That may affect the food supply.”
He said Norway, with a population of 5.4 million, typically relies on 30,000 or more seasonal workers, mostly from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, for the planting and harvesting of fruits and vegetables. Only a small number are already in Norway.
Other countries use far more seasonal labour. Germany alone grants visas for about 300,000 workers each year. Britain takes in 90,000, and Switzerland 33,000. Even less wealthy European countries rely extensively on seasonal workers; Spain, where much of the continent’s citrus fruits and olive oil are produced, recruits 15,000 from Morocco alone.
Canada banned foreign farm workers shortly after COVID-19 hit the country, then relented. The government is working on plans to allow the workers into Canada as long as they are quarantined for two weeks. Canada takes in about 60,000 farm workers a year, mostly from the Caribbean, Mexico and Guatemala.
The shortage of workers was inevitable once European governments put their citizens in lockdowns of varying degrees of severity earlier this month and largely closed airports and border crossings. On Monday easyJet, one of Europe’s biggest airlines and the operator of an extensive network in Eastern Europe, shut down the last of its flights, meaning farm workers would find it hard to travel even if they were allowed to leave their countries.
By last week, farm lobby groups and agriculture ministries were scrambling to come up with solutions to ensure seasonal workers were not entirely shut out of the Western and Northern European agriculture industry. The European Union’s umbrella group for agricultural organizations, COPA-COGECA, said in a statement: “We urge the [European] Commission to work with member states to monitor the potential lack of workers, including seasonal workers, and the knock-on impact on production, and to prepare contingency plans.”
The coronavirus threatens to disrupt food supply chains everywhere, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said last week. “The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting food systems and all dimensions of food security across the world,” said FAO director-general Qu Dongyu. “No country is immune.”
A few of the large British and German farms have chartered planes to bring in workers from the small number of EU and non-EU countries, notably Bulgaria, that have classified their farm workers as “key” labourers, allowing them to travel. In Norway, Mr. Ruud is pressing the government to extend the visas of the farm workers who were already in the country before the travel restrictions hit the continent.
On March 24, French Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume urged French citizens who found themselves out of work because of the coronavirus crisis “to take to the fields” to help farmers. “I am issuing a call to the men and women who are not working, who are confined to their homes – the waiter, the hotel receptionist, the barber in my neighbourhood whose businesses are closed – and I ask them to join France’s great agricultural army,” Mr. Guillaume said.
He estimated that 200,000 farm jobs are available in France.
Recruiting local workers is not always ideal because they lack agricultural experience and the pay is fairly low, said farm groups in Nordic countries. “We hope Finnish men and women can help us if we don’t get foreign workers,” said Jyrki Jalkanen, chief executive of the Finnish Glasshouse Growers’ Association. “But working on farms is not trendy here. It’s low pay and hard work.”
He said the next few weeks will be crucial for farms in Finland and elsewhere. “If farmers think labour will not arrive, they will not even grow some crops this year,” he said.
The Globe and Mail
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.