Across a locked-down France, strawberries, lettuce and asparagus are ripening, near-ready for picking. Other plants are poking through the warming soil, thanks to rising temperatures and generous sunshine. But the tens of thousands of Polish, Romanian and Moroccan workers who normally flood in for spring harvest are nowhere in sight.
France is not the only country facing a migrant labor crunch. With the coronavirus battening down national borders, many other European farmers also are hurting.
In Britain, agricultural unions are pressing the government to fly in Eastern European workers on chartered planes. Germany announced Thursday it would relax border restrictions to fill gaps in fields and food processing plants.
Spain and Italy also worry about unpicked fruits and vegetables rotting in fields, further hurting their coronavirus-battered economies.
But in France, the European Union’s biggest agricultural producer, filling the labor shortage has become a national cause — although reactions from the farming world are mixed.
Appealing to leagues of newly sidelined workers — waitresses, hotel workers, hairdressers and others rendered jobless and confined by COVID-19 — Farm Minister Didier Guillaume urged them to “join the great army of French agriculture.”
The rallying cry has resonated strongly in a country where food and rural life are embedded in popular culture and the nation’s very identity.
No matter that many French can’t tell the difference between a strawberry and a potato plant. In a matter of days, more than 200,000 have signed up for fieldwork — if only to escape stuffy confinement. That’s about the same number of extra hands the country’s main FNSEA agricultural union estimates are needed through May.
“I’m in good health, so why not,” speech therapist Florence Khong told French TV, pausing between pulling up leeks. “During these times we need to help each other.”
Many farmers applaud the drive, and the public’s reaction.
“It’s a double win,” said wheat grower Jerome Regnault. “Obviously it will help professionals who need labor, but it also gives people an opportunity to get some fresh air — both psychologically and physically.”
Co-founder of an association trying to reconnect French with the farm world, Regnault’s phone rings incessantly these days. He points aspiring laborers to local associations and a new online volunteer platform, Des bras pour ton assiette (arms for your plate).
But Regnault himself doesn’t need extra help. His two long-time workers are still coronavirus-free. Besides, cereal farming demands experience.
“Obviously, I can’t allow a novice to handle equipment worth several tens of thousands of euros,” he said.
Other growers have similar reservations.
“We’re worried we’ll get people without the needed experience or competence,” vegetable farmer Robert Francais told local media, standing before rows of lettuce that he said demanded special techniques to harvest.
“We have the impression, with this government call, that just about anybody can suddenly become a farmer without training or skills,” said Nicolas Girod, a dairy farmer and spokesman for the Confédération paysanne, France’s third-largest agricultural union. “It feels pretty degrading.”
While applauding the initiative’s spirit, Girod also criticized the idea of unpaid labor—although some jobs come with salaries. His union is selecting only volunteers with past farming experience or agricultural students to fill labor gaps.
For French authorities, the farm drive is part of a broader call to arms to shore up the French economy. Yet as President Emmanuel Macron laments the lack of European unity in its coronavirus response, his finance minister Bruno Le Maire urges the country to display “economic patriotism,” by stocking up on local products.
On social media, some critics compare the government farm drive with China’s traumatic cultural revolution, where millions of young people were sent to work in the countryside. Others suggest it does not square with the nationwide lockdown and other tough health safety measures.
The overall reaction, though, has been massively positive. The volunteer platform is crammed with help-wanted notices: for people to drive tractors, prune trees or generally help at vegetable farms and vineyards.
“A magnificent initiative,” saluted agricultural association Au Coeur de Paysans on Twitter.
Livestock farmer Clement Traineau agreed. “Don’t waste your energy in permanently criticizing,” he tweeted of naysayers. “Save it to make a difference.”