At this time of year John Greene is usually preparing to welcome dozens of Slovakian strawberry pickers for another harvest at his farm in County Wexford in south-east Ireland.
The work is arduous and repetitive and he relies on their experience and stamina to get the fruit picked, packed and sold.
Greene surveyed his fields this week with foreboding. “I look out my window and there’s no one to pick it. None of them are on site at the moment.”
His pickers remain in Slovakia, immobilised by a continent-wide lockdown. It is a similar story for hundreds of thousands of other seasonal agricultural workers who cannot travel just at a time when Europe needs them for harvests.
Fruit and vegetable crops in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the UK and other countries risk rotting in the fields – putrefying testaments to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It won’t be pretty,” said Eamonn Kehoe, a soft fruit specialist with Ireland’s agri-food agency, Teagasc. “If they don’t have the staff it won’t be picked. It’s a nightmare, a perfect storm.”
He was referring to Ireland’s growers, but farmers and agriculture officials across Europe have equally grim warnings about abandoned fields and lost crops unless they can conjure improvised armies of pickers.
Spain, which is the EU’s biggest exporter of fruit and vegetables, is already feeling the impact. “We’re very limited at the moment when it comes to having enough hands to pick and harvest,” said Pedro Barato, the president of Spain’s largest farming association, Asaja.
The pandemic, and the restrictions to combat it, were affecting every region in Spain, he said. “The need for workers is only going to increase as the season wears on. We need people to be working in the fields, while also taking all the necessary health precautions. If we don’t have anyone in the countryside to harvest the products, they’re just going to stay there and there could be shortages.”
In the Andalucían province of Huelva, for instance, only 7,000 of the 19,000 Moroccan workers who normally come had arrived before Morocco closed its border to passenger traffic.
In Italy the need is even greater. Some 90% of its agricultural workers are seasonal, the majority from Romania.