One unforeseen effect of the measures taken to combat the spread of the new coronavirus (Covid-19) is the effect on the harvest of fresh fruit and vegetables, because of the lack of pickers, many of whom come from the countries of Eastern Europe.
Normally, the harvest of fruit and vegetables would not be affected greatly by anti-corona measures. Pickers are outside, working at some distance from each other, and hygiene and food safety rules have to be observed in any case.
But the fruit and vegetable harvest is largely in the hands of seasonal workers who come from Eastern Europe, and since their movement is restricted in times of pandemic, much of Belgium’s production is at risk of withering on the vine, so to speak.
The first harvest to be affected is about to be asparagus, in its white version still one of the most season-bound crops in Belgium and neighbouring countries like Germany.
The RTBF reports one German grower facing a shortage of labour, traditionally from Romania.
“At this moment we have only ten seasonal workers, whereas we would require about 60 full-time workers to harvest everything,” the grower said. “The situation is very tense for growers right now.”
The harvesters are affected, he said, by the closure of the borders of Austria and Hungary, preventing them from travelling to Germany – and by extension Belgium, where the season is slightly later.
Even for those who can make it here, the rules on social distancing will make accommodating them more difficult. Typically, seasonal workers are accommodated in a sort of bunkhouse arrangement of shared accommodation, something that would be unlikely to be approved in present times.
In Belgium, the shortage of labour will affect not only the asparagus crop, but also strawberries, centred on the town of Hoogstraten in Antwerp province. The first of this season’s crop has already been sold at auction, but the main harvest has still to come. And if the pickers are in short supply, the fruit will not wait.
The farmers’ union ABS has sounded the alarm.
“Our estimate is that 10% [of pickers] are on the ground,” said president Hendrik Vandamme.
“That means that an agricultural enterprise where 12 seasonal workers usually are employed now has to make do with barely two. It’s manual labour, and every hand is welcome.”
The union is now calling on people currently at home because their place of employment is closed to present themselves for picking crops, to help growers avert disaster, ensure the food supply and also make some additional income.