World News

Belgian farmers struggle with absent workers, closed markets

By Johanna Geron

WEPION, Belgium (Reuters) – Farmer Luc Warnez is very clear on the two issues threatening his business since the coronavirus outbreak – who will pick the strawberries in his fields and who will eat them?

Farmers across Europe are looking out at ripening crops in a world changed by measures designed to stem the spread of the virus.

“There are two big problems. The workers cannot come because of confinement, including some from abroad. The second issue is that markets are shut and that’s where our strawberries would normally be sold,” Warnez said.

Warnez is one of several farmers around the southern Belgian village of Wepion, renowned for producing some of the Belgium’s best strawberries. It is a situation unmatched in the 80 years his family have been growing berries.

Warnez would normally have 40 workers busy across his 15 hectares (37 acres) of fields during the harvest’s high season in May and June, 25 typically coming from Spain. They will not be arriving this year.

Warnez is hoping to benefit from a project designed to offer farm work to students, retired people and workers such as in hotels and restaurants who have been temporarily laid off.

There has been a lot of demand, but the work can be back-breaking, with the farm’s daily harvest of 4,000 small baskets and hours in the fields from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Claude Vanhemelen, secretary-general of the Walloon Horticulture Federation said finding candidates was easy, but not all were willing to work for modest wages or were only available for say two weeks, which did not interest producers.

“This morning a woman called and said she wanted to work but no one’s been in touch. She’s available every day, but only after 4 p.m,” Vanhemelen said.

Germany, Britain and Ireland have plans to fly over the workers form eastern Europe, the former expecting 80,000 to come from Romania. Migrant farm labourers across Europe work the equivalent of nearly 1 million full-time employees.

Britain is also trying to draft in students and locals furloughed during the crisis.

Belgium has doubled the length of time foreign migrant farm labourers can work in the country.

Nicolas Goffin, a farmer near the eastern village of Rosoux-Crenwick, looks set to benefit from that scheme, with some Romanians able to stay and help with the asparagus harvest, which is set to quadruple in the next two weeks.

“I also tried to get some of my usual people from Romania, but they were turned away at Bucharest Airport,” he said. “In a crisis, for me, it is important to stay positive.”

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Alison Williams)