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Agriculture: worldwide shortage of seasonal workers

by Leo Frühschütz (comments: 0)

seasonal workers for harvesting
symbol picture © @mark / shutterstock

It is not only the lack of seasonal workers for harvesting that is making life difficult for organic farms, here and everywhere. Some markets are changing and the poorest have been hit the hardest by the corona crisis.

Seasonal harvest workers or farm hands are actually misleading terms. "They are experienced workers who know what they have to do and are used to working hard in the fields", explains Markus Fadl, Press Spokesman for Naturland. In spring around 300,000 of these workers usually come to Germany from Romania, Poland, Hungary or the Ukraine. But the borders were closed. Following protests from the agricultural sector, the federal government allowed workers to be flown in; 40,000 in April and 40,000 in May. About 20,000 were already in the country in March.

Great readiness to help

With this there was a shortage of 200,000 that would have to be replaced by domestic support workers. People with good intentions, but usually without experience and endurance. For organic farms, the problem was not only for asparagus. Strawberries and cherries also had to be harvested. In the nurseries, the young plants also need to be planted in the fields, tomatoes have to be tied up in greenhouses and much more.

"The farms used existing portals to search for German helpers or looked in their vicinity. I also heard of a case where several farms in one region chartered a plane together and had their tried and tested workers flown in," says Markus Fadl. "There is a lot of improvisation and searching for solutions going on." In organic farming there are few large specialised farms that need hundreds of helpers. "We have many medium-sized farms that mostly worked by permanent employees", says Bioland spokesman Gerald Wehde. These need only a handful of seasonal workers for peak periods, however this must also be reorganised with loyal workers not being allowed into the country. Bioland and Demeter started their own portals to provide assistance. "The readiness of people to help has far exceeded the demand of the farms", says Gerald Wehde. Help is not only important in the fields and farms can have problems and need help with people off work due sickness and quarantine. If processors stop for these reasons, Gerald Wehde thinks the risk is high and will have a great impact on the region.

The conventional milk market is under extreme pressure due to Corona as half of the conventional milk is exported, and this has largely stopped, as well as the sales to out-of-home catering. This will have an impact on the price producers receive. Organic milk producers can expect stable prices. "The organic milk market is largely a regional market," explains Gerald Wehde. The dependence on large consumers and exports is low and decreases could be compensated by the increasing demand in the retail sector.

Immediate help for farmers

Nevertheless, the situation for many farms is bad. The dairy, Berchtesgadener Land which is organised as a cooperative, has paid its farmers emergency aid of 1,000 euros as their farms are often small and they have lost other sources of income such as farm holidays. The prices for wood from forestry has fallen and many part-time farmers have lost their second income due to short-time working.

In conventional meat markets prices are also falling. For organic beef, Stephanie Lehmann of Biokreis reports a different trend - the demand for older cattle is high because a lot of organic minced meat is being bought. "On the other hand, beef cattle farmers are having problems selling their meat because there are no buyers from the catering sector. Andree Höping, who manages raw materials trade at Davert, says that the farms are nervous "because the pressure on prices is still high and no margins can be achieved to cover any higher or additional expenditure from the corona crisis". The grain is still (mid-April) well on the fields, "but the moisture in the soil is slowly going". By the beginning of May at the latest, it needs to have rained heavly to ensure a good harvest. This also the same for vegetable growers and grassland farms.

Shortage of helpers everywhere

There is even a shortage of seasonal workers in Spain, the most important organic supplier of fresh vegetables. Workers from Morocco are not allowed to enter the country, and contact restrictions make life difficult for working immigrants living in the country. Joint trips to the fields in minibuses, for example, are not permitted. However, farms are producing. "There are seasonal shortages, but overall it’s working" according to fresh food importer Naturkost Schramm. "The supply from Italy is working well," says Eva Kiene, Rapunzel spokeswoman. The fact that there are bottlenecks is still due to panic buying.

Seasonal workers are also lacking in other growing areas. "Purchasing is very complex at present, as it is becoming apparent that in 2020 it will not be possible to completely catch up with harvests due to the curfews in some countries such as India," according to the current email circular sent out by Grasshopper, the herb specialists. The TeeKampagne reported that the tea gardens in Darjeeling and Assam were closed for weeks and that only a small number of workers have been allowed to harvest there since mid-April. In addition to the problems in the field, there are also difficulties with logistics for products from outside the EU. Ports have closed and authorities are working slower than usual or not at all. According to the fair-trade company Gepa, the impact varies greatly depending on the partner and the country. The main concern for importers is not so much about their ability to deliver but more about how hard the Corona crisis will hit their partners. "60 to 80 percent of the national economies of Mexico, Honduras, Peru and Guatemala are informal," explains Kleber Cruz Garcia, who manages Gepa's coffee purchasing. "The majority of the population lives off what they earn in the day."

Gepa collects donations

It gets very close to zero when curfew restrictions paralyse economies, not only in South America but in all developing and emerging countries. On its website, the company allows its trading partners to report on the situation locally and together with its partner Misereor, raise donations to help those who have been hit hardest by the corona crisis.


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