At this time of the year, Matt Stanton usually prepares to welcome 70 to 80 Romanian seasonal workers to harvest asparagus on his family farm in Kent, southeast England. This year, he expects seven.
As the coronavirus outbreak reduces international travel, farmers in richer countries around the world face similar problems, disrupting the established flow of tens of thousands of people from poorer countries each year from the food harvest.
As farmers' harvests and sharp economic downturns have put pressure on food producers in many countries, travel restrictions have reduced seasonal migration to a drop, just as farmers are preparing to harvest.
"We just need to do our best … Stanton said:" If the crop cannot be harvested, this year's harvest will be lost. "
In Europe, the problem is very serious, with Britain, France and Germany scrambling to recruit local workers, including students and workers fired in frustrated industries such as hospitality. But the timing of the outbreak has left the agricultural industry with little opportunity to establish new recruitment channels, and some potential workers may be reluctant to accept manual labor.
Chatham House researcher Laura Wellesley said: "One of the biggest concerns is that we will see a severe labor shortage in the logistics supply chain. If we see a labor shortage, then you mean real Supply shortage. "
According to the National Farmers Federation FNSEA, in France alone, 200,000 workers will be needed to grow crops such as strawberries in the Loire Valley and asparagus in Alsace in the next three months. Approximately 800,000 are required for the entire harvest season; usually about two thirds come from abroad, including Central and Eastern Europe, Tunisia and Morocco.
According to the German Farmers Association DBV, Germany usually has about 300,000 seasonal workers from Eastern Europe each year, most of them from Romania and the rest from Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary. In the UK, about 70,000 to 80,000 workers come to Romania every year to pick fruits and vegetables, many of them from Romania and Bulgaria.
But Europe's Schengen area has banned outside visitors for 30 days. Within the European Union, Germany announced Wednesday that it will ban seasonal workers until further notice. Austria, Hungary and other countries have closed their land borders, preventing land routes from Eastern Europe.
Farmers say that even if workers can travel, a small portion of regular flights and buses can be used, and many are afraid of getting infected with the coronavirus or being prevented from returning to their homes after work is done.
FNSEA director Christine Lambert said the union had received reports that French farmers had torn and discarded asparagus because of a lack of manual harvesting.
This is not only a problem in Europe: the United States restricts seasonal migrant worker visas from Mexico, and its farmers face similar problems, while the outbreak of China is also facing a labor shortage after restricting internal travel.
"The nation's number one world economy is accustomed to workers picking fruits and vegetables from other economies," said Ali Caper, chairman of the Horticulture Committee of the British National Farmers Federation. "You are talking about a major change in society."
In response to World War II rhetoric, the British Rural Land and Business Association called for a new "army" of farm workers. Germany called on the unemployed to work on the farm, and French Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume called for a rally, calling him France's "shadow army."
"I told them: join the French agricultural army. Join those who allow us to eat in a clean, healthy and sustainable way." He said on BFM television.
Stephanie Maurel, chief executive of Concordia, a work internship charity in the UK, said the application had attracted 8,000 investors, including journalists and professional football players. Pro-Force, another recruiter, is negotiating with a hotel chain that has been suspended.
However, many workers in rich countries are not accustomed to the often demanding manual labor at minimum or piece rates. Luc Barbier, a representative of the French National Fruit Producers Federation, said his farm needs 80 workers per season but must hire 150 workers to deal with the wastage.
He said: "We start at 6 or 6:30 in the morning and work 8 hours outside, regardless of the weather." "A lot of people came for a few days and then resigned. Some people even told me that they would rather be unemployed. "
Governments are getting involved in recruitment: French unemployment agency has set up a website that connects farmers with workers and tells people that they can still receive benefits or make money if they are on vacation, while also getting extra income from agriculture . During the pandemic, the British government declared farm workers "key workers" and maintained daily contact with agricultural unions.
As the harvest peak approaches, this issue becomes more urgent. Some British strawberry farmers are dismantling poly-funnels that are often used to accelerate maturity as they seek additional labor.
"If (the crisis) drags on into summer, it will be a huge blow," said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Xavier Mas, a strawberry farmer in southwestern France, is struggling without a Moroccan worker family and they have been banned from helping this year. "We can manage it now, but if someone leaves or the weather gets hot-leading to faster fruit ripening-it will be a disaster."
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and Daniel Dombey in Madrid