The US produce sector is alarmed by the growing number of coronavirus cases reported among fruit and vegetable packers, according to Reuters. Besides the health risks to staff, the problem is leading to labour shortages that threaten to disrupt US produce supplies. Health officials in the state of Washington report 600 agricultural workers testing positive for Covid-19 in Yakima Country in May, 62% of whom were from the apple industry. For figure until 10th June, the county had the highest per-capita infection rate on the west coast of the US. In Monterey County, California, known for its high concentration of vegetable farms, 39% of all Covid-19 cases were among agricultural workers.
And it’s not only on the west coast that there’s a problem. Immokalee (Florida), a tomato production hub, has also reported a spike in coronavirus cases. Given the importance of the fresh produce industry, the USDA and the FDA have said the government could use the Defense Production Act to protect fruit and vegetable packhouses and keep them in operation. The act would allow packers some liability protection should their employees fall sick with the virus.
Italy’s fruit sector has sounded the alarm: there is a shortage of workers, from the fields to the warehouse. The measures that the Italian government are taking to prevent migrants entering the country are hurting the agricultural sector which for so long has depended on the flexibility these workers provide. From the north to the south of the country, the situation is the same. Italians no longer wish to work in the countryside, meaning there is a lack of skilled labour in the warehouses and packaging facilities as well as in the fields at harvest time.
Some 90,000 workers are needed this summer on UK farms. Nevertheless, there is a real danger that the UK’s fruit producers will not have sufficient workers to harvest the bumper fruit crop expected this year. Although the spring weather means a slightly delayed harvest, fruit yields should be good this year, which is vital at this time of year as the UK consumes 34,000 kg of strawberries over the fortnight of the Wimbledon tennis tournament. Scotland and the north of the country are worst affected by the lack of labour as their relatively shorter seasons make the jobs less attractive.
The shortfall of farm labourers predates Brexit. With unemployment falling in Romania and Bulgaria, fewer citizens of these countries are now seeking work abroad. This is why other EU countries look beyond Europe’s borders. For instance, Poland hires many North Korean workers to harvest its crops and Portugal hires from Thailand. Ironically, the UK is the only EU country that hires exclusively EU workers.
The Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggests that almost a third of its members are scaling back as a result of the shortage and some reported they would be removing orchards, which is worrying given that more than 60% of the country’s traditional orchards have disappeared since the 1950s.
The Association of Labour Providers said 49% of labour providers do not expect to be able to source sufficient seasonal agricultural workers this year. An average of 60% of agriculture and horticulture businesses are experiencing shortages in low and unskilled roles, with one in eight in crisis.
The outlook is as yet unclear and will remain so until September, when the berry season ends and the apples and pears season begins. This is when demand for labour is highest. In September 2016 the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said there was a 17% shortfall, while in 2017 this had increased to nearly 30%.