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Coronavirus Lockdown Challenges Farmers & Food Supplies

During the ongoing coronavirus crisis, governments across Western Europe have been keen to stress that nations won’t run out of food. But that doesn’t mean that our farmers aren’t already facing challenges with getting their seasonal produce from their fields to our forks.

“The biggest problem for us at the moment is a shortage of labour” explained Toby Finnis, a farmer from Essex, just outside London, England. “Here in the UK we rely on seasonal workers, mainly from Eastern Europe, travelling over to the UK to pick fruits and vegetables.”

In an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus around the continent, the EU has closed its external borders. Goods can still flow into the Schengen area but people can’t, and it’s already having an impact on the continent’s farmers. 

“We’ve already lost our contracts for some crops as we can’t find the people to pick them,” added Toby. “Whether it’s because people are unable or unwilling to travel over here, we’ve found that the seasonal workforce we usually rely on simply isn’t an option at the moment.”

The farm labour charity, Concordia, warned last week that the UK could lose a third of this summer’s food harvest due to labour shortages.1 It’s not just the UK that’s facing issues either; farmers across western Europe - including in Spain, Germany and Italy - would all usually rely on seasonal workers to collect in their harvests. This year they may have to find other means.

The Harvesting Problem: Picking by Hand

In this modern age of technology, why are farms still so dependent on having many pairs of hands? The mechanisation of modern agriculture has made farms hugely more efficient; tractors plough the fields in place of oxen, planters allow quick and precise sowing of seeds across huge areas and sprayers help farmers treat and maintain their crops. But there is one time of year when machines simply can’t do it all - harvest.

“We use machines to harvest some crops, but many high-value fresh fruits and vegetables still need picking by hand,” explains Toby. “In this UK we’re talking about crops like spring onions, strawberries or asparagus. They’re simply too fragile to harvest with large-scale machines like harvesters - you’d tear the crop to bits.”

In the absence of suitable technology, most farms still rely on human beings to pick soft fruits and vegetables by hand. Those hands usually belong to seasonal workers from eastern Europe or North Africa, and the number of them that flock to Europe to pick the harvest every spring and summer is staggering: the UK needs around 70,000 seasonal farm workers every year,2 whilst Germany welcomes almost 300,000.3

“Without people to pick these crops, I simply can’t see a way of us harvesting them,” adds Toby. “If we don’t, they will rot in the fields and we’ll just plough them back into the ground. I’m worried we’re going to see a terrific amount of food go to waste.”

One solution could be for local citizens who find themselves out of work to take to the fields. Farms across the UK, Italy, France and Germany have appealed for students, job seekers and those put out of work by coronavirus to take up paid positions picking and packing fruit and vegetables. So far the response has been encouraging, but filling such a large number of posts will not be easy.

Can Mechanised Harvesting Help? 

Luckily, not all the food we harvest is picked by hand. “Most staple crops we now harvest using machines.” explains Toby. “There’s wheat in the ground now and we’re planting things like potatoes, peas and barley at the moment - all of which can be harvested mechanically.” With hardy crops like these that can be collected in using machines, a couple of farmers with the right equipment can harvest an entire field by themselves in just a few days.

It’s the mechanised harvest of cereals and other staple crops that makes Toby confident that farms can keep the nation fed throughout the current crisis. “I don’t think we’ll see a food shortage,” he says. “This virus might reduce the choice shoppers have in supermarkets, but it’s not going to mean people can’t put food on the table.”

Without Spare Parts, Machines Break Down

There is one thing that gives Toby cause for concern though. “Labour shortages aren’t the only challenge - we’re already facing equipment shortages too. Right now we’re finding it hard to get basic construction materials like fence posts and concrete, but the real concern is the supply of spare parts.”

Because of coronavirus, many of the factories across Europe that make farming equipment and spare parts are closed or working slower than normal.4 For the time being, farms can still get the parts they need to repair equipment that breaks down - but what happens if stocks run out? 

“The longer this shutdown goes on, the closer we get to a point where we can’t get what we need to repair our equipment” Toby says. “ If replacement parts become hard to get hold of, modern mechanised agriculture would literally start to break down. That’s when I’d start worrying - but it’s very unlikely to happen.”

Farmers are Rising to the Challenge

Just like doctors, teachers and other key workers, farmers have a critical role to play in helping us weather the storm - and they’re stepping up to the challenge. “Times are hard,” Toby concedes, “but us farmers know it’s our collective responsibility to keep people fed. Don’t worry - we’ll do everything we can to adapt during coronavirus to make sure families can put food on the table.”

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