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Germany Faces A Shortage Of Seasonal Farmworkers Due To The Pandemic


Springtime in Germany, and asparagus - the vegetable - is synonymous with the season there. This year, as you might expect, getting asparagus to German tables is quite a challenge. Because of the coronavirus, of course, there is a shortage of hundreds of thousands of seasonal farm workers, most from eastern Europe. Can the harvest be saved? Well, NPR's Rob Schmitz explains how urban hipsters hope to come to the rescue.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Arne Garlipp has farmed his 150 acres of asparagus in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt for 24 years, and for much of that time, he's relied on the help of seasonal workers to help him harvest it each spring.

ARNE GARLIPP: (Through interpreter) Our Romanian workers live with us on the farm. It's a small microcosm. In the fields, they're surrounded by fresh air, birds and very few people.

SCHMITZ: But when Germany closed its borders to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus, Garlipp and hundreds of thousands of other German farmers were suddenly in panic mode. Each year, 300,000 seasonal workers from mostly Romania and Poland harvest asparagus, lettuce, apples and other crops that Germans rely on. Farmer Garlipp was suddenly faced with the prospect of hiring Germans to do the work.

GARLIPP: (Through interpreter) The German back is simply not as strong as it used to be, and you can't compare it with the strength of a Polish or Romanian back.

SCHMITZ: Unfortunately for Germany, German backs are what its 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 it won't be enough.

UDO HEMMERLING: There will be an impact in the market. We will see this in the later year in the summer.

SCHMITZ: Udo Hemmerling is with the German Farmers Federation. He says all of Europe's biggest agricultural producers will be hit hard by this worker shortage. The situation is so dire that EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has urged member states to allow workers to come to their countries, equating seasonal fruit and vegetable pickers with doctors and nurses on the frontline of the pandemic. And that's where app developer Fabian Hohne comes in. He and his team created an app called Cleverackern - clever plowing in German - and it aims to address the loss of work 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 just lost their jobs - register and tell us their availability on the upcoming weeks and months to help farmers on their fields.

SCHMITZ: Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hohne ran a travel booking app that offered last-minute discounted airline tickets to students. With nobody flying, his staff needed something to do, so they came up with an app connecting farmers and potential workers. And they're offering the service for free. Within days of setting up the app, Hohne has 40,000 people registered to become farm workers.

HOHNE: The great weather, of course, is bringing people outside and saying, let's do something. Let's help.

SCHMITZ: But farmer Garlipp is skeptical workers from the city who are looking for work in nice weather may regret it once they see how hard the work really is, and he's not convinced it's a good idea healthwise, either.

GARLIPP: (Through interpreter) If I take on German volunteers to help with the harvest, assuming they're fit enough for the job, the problem I face is that they'll come from all over the region. I have no idea where these people have been or who they're mixing with at the end of the day, and the risk of infection is much higher.

SCHMITZ: Garlipp says he's received more than 100 offers from Germans willing to help him on the farm, but it turns out he will not need their help. Thanks to the German government, his regular team of 80 Romanians is among those who will be allowed to bring in the harvest this year.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF EX-POETS SONG, "STILL WAITING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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