TORRE DEL BURGO, Spain, April 21 (Reuters) - About half of farmer Jaime Urbina’s asparagus crop lies unpicked in his fields in central Spain as border closures to curb the coronavirus block Eastern European seasonal labourers.
Right at peak food-harvesting time, farms across the nation have a shortfall of thousands of workers. Asparagus, especially, requires a lot of labour as it is harvested piece-by-piece.
“Everyone here in the asparagus sector has this problem - we don’t have the manpower,” Urbina lamented, standing in a field in Torre del Burgo in Guadalajara province.
In normal circumstances, Urbina exports part of his produce. But with so much of the crop lying unpicked, Spain is in the unprecedented situation of having to import asparagus from Germany to meet domestic demand, he said.
Facing one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the COVID-19 disease, Spain went into lockdown on March 14, closing borders and confining people to home.
In early April, the government started an initiative to get more workers into the fields, authorizing temporary hiring of tens of thousands of immigrants or jobless people.
But many who have applied to pick asparagus do not have the stamina of the foreign seasonal workers who traditionally move from harvest to harvest across Spain, said Urbina.
“Many people have contacted us but we know from experience that although they start with a lot of gusto, they are not accustomed to this kind of work and it exhausts them,” he said.
Out of 40 or 50 workers interviewed and hired for the lockdown harvest, only around 10 remain, he said.
In a muddy field, labourers bend to cut the green spears with a long curved knife. They place the asparagus in plastic boxes that are collected by tractor. The vegetable is then brought to the warehouse and bundled ready for sale.
In the packing shed is Elena Garcia, a self-employed beautician who worked in a hairdresser’s until losing her job due to the lockdown.
“I think it’s harder working out in the field than here packing. Here the work is tough but I get along fine,” she said. (Writing by Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
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