How can I help the poor farmers

Corona crisis is pushing farmers to their limits : "The harvest is in danger"

Simon Klein is worried. In a week it should actually start on his farm with the first harvest of the year. Klein cultivates a total of 150 hectares of land near the North Rhine-Westphalian city of Dormagen, 90 hectares with vegetables. Rhubarb is harvested here in spring and pumpkin seeds are planted for autumn. Everything by hand.

But nothing will come of it now - because the farmer is missing the harvest helpers due to the Corona crisis. Klein needs around 80 sounds to harvest the rhubarb. But so far only 20 workers have made a firm commitment. Most of the seasonal workers from Bulgaria, Romania or Poland, who otherwise toil in the fields here, have preferred to stay at home since the outbreak of the pandemic - also because Europe's governments are increasingly closing their borders. For Klein this means: "The harvest is in danger."

Like him, many farmers in Germany are doing right now. "I can very well understand that farmers are worried about the spread of the coronavirus and fear the consequences for their farms," ​​says Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner (CDU).

[You can follow current developments on the coronavirus pandemic here.]

Basic service remains in place

Klöckner's party friend Albert Stegemann, agricultural policy spokesman for the Union parliamentary group in the Bundestag, is also getting a lot of worried calls and letters from farmers these days, he says. After more and more restaurants have to close because of the virus, the crisis will hit the fruit and vegetable farmers next - not only because they will soon be selling significantly fewer products, but also because they lack the workers to find perishable products such as strawberries or asparagus to save the decay.

“The asparagus harvest will start in four to five weeks,” says Stegemann. "I would like the federal government to clarify what is going to happen in agriculture as soon as possible." Klöckner therefore wants to exchange ideas with representatives of the association and talk about state aid for farmers - especially for those who contract the coronavirus. "What is fundamentally true for the self-employed and employees also applies to agriculture," says the minister. Bureaucratic hurdles are also to be reduced.

Stegemann calls for direct economic aid for the farmers: "I agree with Minister of Economic Affairs Altmaier that the Corona crisis should not drive anyone into bankruptcy." Peter Altmaier (CDU) recently said that "if possible, no company" would go bankrupt because of the Corona crisis allowed to go. Stegmann says that this should also apply to farmers. "In the future, many farmers will need more than interest-free loans; we will have to talk about direct donations of money."

The supply of the population with staple foods such as potatoes or grain is not initially affected by the agricultural crisis, experts unanimously emphasize. The food stores are still full. "Even in times of the coronavirus, we farmers will continue to be able to supply the population with safe and high-quality food," says Joachim Rukwied, President of the German Farmers' Association.

Every helping hand is needed

However, if farmers do not find enough harvest workers soon, it will be difficult for some to keep their farms going. "If the borders remain closed for a longer period of time, we can face considerable problems due to a lack of seasonal workers and harvest workers, who we urgently need to support agriculture," says Rukwied.

It's not just about the current harvest, but also about the seeds for autumn, which are sometimes done by hand in vegetable growing. "You now have to see how you can motivate people to work in the field, for example when harvesting strawberries and rhubarb," says the green agricultural politician Friedrich Ostendorff, who runs an organic farm himself. "At the moment every helping hand is needed on the farms."

Klöckner suggests that the many restaurateurs who will soon find themselves unemployed should give farmers a hand. “Whether those employees who unfortunately have less and less to do in the catering industry can and want to step in in agriculture - we have to consider something like that too,” she says. The CDU politician Stegemann thinks little of the idea. “That has nothing to do with the reality on farms,” he says. "We can hardly do without the seasonal workers and their experience."

300,000 foreign harvest workers per year

In fact, it will be difficult to get people from Germany to work in the fields at all - for years there have been hardly any Germans who have signed up for the strenuous activity. Instead, according to the farmers' association, around 300,000 foreign seasonal workers toil on German fields every year and ensure that they are cultivated. They too are now suffering from the crisis. “We also underestimate how hard this work is: working eight hours in a stooped position. Who wants to do that under an hourly wage of 13 to 14 euros? ”Says the SPD member of the Bundestag Rainer Spiering, agricultural policy spokesman for his parliamentary group.

For him, the current shortage of harvest workers from Eastern Europe reveals a fundamental problem in today's agriculture - and beyond. “We have around half a million cheap workers from abroad in Germany,” he says. "If they fail, the entire problem of this system becomes apparent." This will also have to be discussed in the aftermath of the Corona crisis.

In the crisis, the value of conventional agriculture, i.e. the machine cultivation of large areas beyond the organic trend, is also evident, says Spiering. Because this type of agriculture guarantees the basic supply of important foods such as potatoes and grain. Conventional agriculture gets by with "relatively few workers," says the SPD politician. "This is a decisive advantage, especially in the current crisis."

However, none of this is an option for the small fruit farmer. Rhubarb can only be harvested by hand, and there are no machines that can plant pumpkin seeds. Klein and his family face three months of the season. “We're scared,” he says. Will his company survive the crisis? In the meantime, he has launched an appeal on Facebook to attract a few more harvest workers. In a week, when the rhubarb harvest starts, it will show whether there will be enough.

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