German farmers say asparagus harvest is "in grave danger"
All across the country, white asparagus heads are starting to poke through the soil and Germany’s absolute favourite season of the year - Spargelzeit - is coming into view. But far from rejoicing, farmers are starting to worry about major crop losses.
Coronavirus prevents seasonal workers from reaching Germany
As well as causing the widespread shutdown of daycare centres and schools, shops, bars and gyms, the coronavirus crisis is also slowing or even preventing the arrival of hundreds of seasonal workers, who usually travel to Germany at this time of year to help with the harvest.
Travel restrictions mean that many are being delayed at the border, which was partially closed on Monday, or simply did not set off in the first place. In Brandenburg, where 2.300 workers were expected, only 20 percent have so far arrived.
While some of the workers are scared to travel to Germany, which is now considered one of the centres of the European outbreak, others simply cannot find transportation. In countries like Romania, bus drivers are unwilling to take them, as they would be forced to go into quarantine on their return.
The chairman of the asparagus association, Jürgen Jakobs, told DPA that he is receiving new cancellations every hour. Overall, farmers are expecting about a third of their workforce to be absent this year. “It’s getting very, very extreme,” said Rolf Meinhardt, the chairman of the Spargel Südhessen working group. “The asparagus harvest is in grave danger.”
Autumn harvest is also threatened
The problem that Germany’s asparagus farmers are currently facing is the start of an even greater one in the future. If the seasonal workers can’t come, it’s not just the asparagus that will rot in the ground - there won’t be any strawberries, vegetables or salad leaves, either.
It’s in the spring that seeds for autumn harvests are sown. “Nobody can cope with a year without a harvest,” Meinhardt said.
Federal Agriculture Ministry promises support
As farmers begin to voice their concerns, Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner has assured them that the government will provide assistance. “What applies to self-employed and salaried workers also applies to agriculture,” she said.
One of Klöckner’s suggestions is that restaurant workers, who will soon be out of work, step in to help farmers. “Whether those employees who unfortunately have less and less to do in the catering trade, can and want to step into the agricultural sector - we also have to consider something like this,” she said.
A quick glance at the statistics, however, would suggest that this is unlikely. For years, hardly any Germans have signed up for the strenuous job of bringing in the harvest. German farms instead depend on approximately 300.000 foreign seasonal workers each year, who work for around 13 to 14 euros per hour.
According to Rainer Spiering of the SPD, the current shortage lays bare a fundamental problem in today’s agriculture. “We have around half a million cheap workers from abroad in Germany,” he said. “If they fail to appear, the entire problem of this system becomes apparent.”