German farmers faced challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, because the country experienced a shortage of seasonal workers who usually come from Eastern European countries.
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Spring is in Germany, and asparagus – vegetables – is identical to the season there. This year, as you might expect, bringing asparagus to the German table is a big challenge. Because coronavirus, of course, there is a shortage of hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers, mostly from eastern Europe. Can the harvest be saved? Well, NPR Rob Schmitz explains how urban hipsters hope to come to the rescue.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Arne Garlipp has planted 150 of his pickled asparagus in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt for 24 years, and for most of the time, he relied on the help of seasonal workers to help him harvest it every spring.
ARNE GARLIPP: (Through translators) Our Romanian workers live with us on the farm. That is a small microcosm. In the fields, they are surrounded by fresh air, birds, and very few people.
SCHMITZ: But when Germany closed its borders to try and slow the spread of the corona virus, Garlipp and hundreds of thousands of other German farmers suddenly went into panic mode. Every year, 300,000 seasonal workers from most of Romania and Poland harvest German asparagus, lettuce, apples and other crops. Farmer Garlipp was suddenly confronted with the prospect of hiring Germans to do the work.
GARLIPP: (Through an interpreter) The German back isn’t as strong as it used to be, and you can’t compare it to the back strength of Poland or Romania.
SCHMITZ: Unfortunately for Germany, German backs are what farmers are stuck with for the most part. The government has given special permission to 80,000 seasonal workers from Romania and Poland to harvest German crops, but that is not enough.
UDO HEMMERLING: There will be an impact on the market. We will see this at the end of the year in the summer.
SCHMITZ: Udo Hemmerling with the German Farmers Federation. He said all the biggest agricultural producers in Europe would be hit by this shortage of workers. The situation was so dire that European Union Commission president Ursula von der Leyen urged member states to allow workers to come to their countries, equating seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers with doctors and nurses at the forefront of the pandemic. And that’s where application developer Fabian Hohne enters. He and his team created an application called Cleverackern – smart piracy in German – and aims to address the loss of jobs in urban Germany with the need for workers in rural Germany.
FABIAN HOHNE: Cleverackern is a platform where people – students, young people and people who have recently lost their jobs – register and tell us their availability in the coming weeks and months to help farmers in their fields.
SCHMITZ: Until the coronavirus pandemic struck, Hohne ran a travel booking application that offers last-minute discounts on plane tickets to students. With nothing flying, the staff needs to do something, so they come up with an application that connects farmers and potential workers. And they offer free services. Within days of preparing the application, Hohne had 40,000 people registered to become agricultural workers.
HOHNE: The weather is good, of course, taking people outside and saying, let’s do something. Let’s help.
SCHMITZ: But the Garlipp farmer is a skeptical worker from the city who is looking for work in good weather might regret it once they see how difficult the job is, and he’s not sure that’s a healthy idea, too.
GARLIPP: (Through translators) If I bring German volunteers to help with the harvest, assuming they are quite suitable for the job, the problem I face is that they will come from all regions. I don’t know where these people are or who they hang out with at the end of the day, and the risk of infection is much higher.
SCHMITZ: Garlipp said he had received more than 100 offers from Germany who were willing to help him on the farm, but apparently he would not need their help. Thanks to the German government, its regular team of 80 Romans is among those who will be allowed to bring this year’s harvest.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.
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