Shortage of field workers Harvesting hands desperately needed

GELDERN/VIERSEN · As wages increase in some eastern European countries, it becomes more difficult to find workers who are willing to come to Germany to harvest in the fields. The workers are being increasingly wooed as German industry also competes for them.

Farmers like to complain about the European Union (EU) and its regulations. And in this case too, the EU is once again a reason for their bad luck: it has brought prosperity to member countries such as Poland. "Anyone who gets enough work in their own country does not drive 2,500 kilometers to harvest asparagus for two or three months in Germany," says Dirk Janßen. He runs a family asparagus farm in Walbeck. He has had difficulties this year to find enough Poles who want to work in the asparagus fields during the harvest season.

Like Janßen, other fruit and vegetable growers on the Lower Rhine are also affected. Thousands of seasonal workers from eastern and southeastern Europe come to Germany year after year to help with the harvest in spring and summer. There are no statistics about exactly how many workers come. However, some asparagus farms employ up to 150 seasonal workers during the harvest season, according to a farming community in Krefeld-Viersen. Without the field workers, the harvest is in danger and with it the asparagus crop. "I have a 17-year-old son who is about to follow in my footsteps," says Stephan Kisters. "But I don’t know if that's a good idea." Kisters, like his neighbor Janßen, runs an asparagus farm in Walbeck.

Fewer harvest helpers do not mean less of a yield, but instead losses due to poorer quality. Asparagus plants are sensitive, each plant has multiple shoots. You can produce from the same plant several times. The white asparagus is harvested shortly before it pierces the earth's surface. Since the asparagus grows very fast in good weather - sometimes several centimeters a day - you have to harvest regularly. Janßen explains it this way: "If I normally have a 24-hour harvesting rhythm on a field and only harvest after 36 hours, then the asparagus spears are too long, the tips are crooked and may even start to blossom due to the heat."

This year, the Kisters and Janßens have found just enough people. "We have also added helpers from Romania," says Janßen. Recruitment agencies look for harvest workers in countries like Poland and Romania and most farmers are now working with such agencies. But many also have seasonal workers who have been coming for years.

"In the future, workers will be able to choose where they work based on accommodations, pay and social environment," says Kisters. He adds that because the asparagus farmers compete not only among each other for the good harvest workers, but also with German industry, the harvest workers are being increasingly wooed.

Even if one finds enough harvest workers at the beginning of the asparagus season, that does not mean they will stay over the entire harvest period. That's been the experience of asparagus farmer Janßen. The workers can earn quite a bit of money here relative to their living standard and when they think they have already earned enough, they often return home, even before the end of the season.

Asparagus farmer Kisters mentioned some projects from a few years ago in which long-term unemployed people were placed by the Employment Agency onto asparagus farms. "This was subsidized by the state, everywhere there was schooling on how to harvest asparagus. That did not work," says Kisters. "Asparagus is a back-breaking job, not everyone can do it. Some people can’t work eight hours in the field in the heat." Last year, Kisters also tried working with refugees. He contacted the Refugee Commissioner of the City of Geldern, who sent him a dozen harvest workers. In the end, only one remained, a Syrian who was a trained baker. The others just didn’t show up anymore.

Mark Bonus grows lettuce, cabbage and pumpkins in Niederkrüchten. In the past, he too employed mainly Poles for the harvest, but today harvest workers also come from the Balkans.

In the meantime, some farms recruit students from Belarus, says Bonus. Belarus is not in the EU, but students can enter with a visa during the semester break. For Bonus this is not a permanent solution. He is looking for people not only for two or three months, but for half a year. The long-term solution could also come in the form of price increases or harvesting machinery, says Paul-Christian Küskens, chairman of Krefeld-Viersen county farming community.

Farmers who end up spending more money on staff, cannot pass on all of those costs to the consumer, says asparagus grower Kisters. "This year, many harvest helpers will take home more money than the farmers." As for harvesting machinery, he feels most vegetable farmers still believe that harvesting by hand is irreplaceable.

In a few years, there might be harvesting machines that have good enough fine motor and sensor skills. "The question is, if you want that," says Kisters. "The asparagus would also lose its shroud of secrecy, and its reputation as something special." Asparagus grower Janßen agrees with him, "Asparagus would become even more of a mass product."

(Orig. text: Franziska Hein; Translation: ck)

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