“It’s quite taxing,” said Ms. Goursat, who spends half her day bending over to carefully pick the asparagus without snapping off their slender shoots.

Ms. Goursat is a soldier in France’s “great agricultural army,” thousands of locally recruited workers who are deploying to the country’s fields after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the flow of seasonal laborers.

Covid-19 is tearing at the European Union’s binding principles, raising questions about the viability of an economic system built on borderless migration and a single marketplace that matches labor supply with demand. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the sudden reordering of its agricultural industry.

Normally, workers from poorer parts of the European Union, particularly Central and Eastern Europe, would take many of these jobs. Each spring they hopscotch the continent on buses, moving from farm to farm to plant and pick crops.

French student Charles Albrand works in Sylvie Rauffet’s asparagus fields. Normally, seasonal workers from other countries would do the work.

Now, with many borders closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, many in Western Europe are rethinking the dependence on distant pools of labor—and are trying to spur an interest in farm work among people closer to home.

The crisis is putting other practices of European agriculture under scrutiny, including the use of long-haul trucks to move livestock and produce, and farms’ growing specialization on niche, luxury products such as white asparagus.

When borders and businesses closed in mid-March, farmers were stuck with rotting crops that restaurants, hotels and other venues affected by the lockdowns were no longer buying.

The continent is beginning to relax national borders and reopen its economy, and farmers now need manpower to plant and harvest.

Travel is still restricted in many areas for nonessential workers. In response to the labor squeeze, the EU deemed seasonal workers essential, but countries have the final say on whether the laborers can cross their borders and under what conditions.

And many workers in Central and Eastern Europe, where the pandemic is less severe, are hesitant to travel to more heavily afflicted countries in the West, because of the health risk, particularly if it means crowding into buses.

Ewa Adam, a 45-year-old in Poland, had been planning to travel by bus, passing through Germany, to the south of France for a three-month farming stint that pays €8,000.

Empty Fields

Closed borders have hurt European farms, which on average are much smaller and less mechanized than those in the U.S. and depend on seasonal workers.

Estimates of foreign seasonal workers per year

370 thousand

Italy

300

Germany*

270

France*

243

U.S.

U.K.

60

Farms per country/region

EU

10.50 million

U.S.

2.05

Italy

1.14

France

0.46

Germany

0.28

U.K.

0.19

Average size of farms

U.S.

445 acres

EU

41

*Includes non-foreign workers

“I can live comfortably in Poland for a year” with the money, Ms. Adam says.

But she’s putting it off, waiting for the spread of the virus to slow. She’s also spooked about the potential for sudden border closures, which would cut her off from elderly family members she looks after in Poland. “Both the German and French borders were a problem,” she says.

Farmers in the U.S. might face a similar shortage of labor as they sponsor visas for migrant workers from Mexico and other poorer countries. While the Trump administration has recently taken steps to make it easier for farms to hire migrant workers, on Monday night President Trump said all immigration would be temporarily halted. The executive order is expected to include exceptions for farmworkers, but details weren’t available.

Labor contractors who recruit, transport and house seasonal workers say they are checking workers’ temperatures before they cross the U.S.-Mexico border. They are also boosting sanitation at the motels, apartments and labor camps where workers live, setting aside rooms to isolate any ill workers.

The demand for seasonal farmworkers is less acute in the U.S., because farms are concentrated in the hands of fewer owners, who have embraced automation to a greater degree than Europeans. The U.S. grows a higher proportion of bulk crops, which are easier to plant and harvest with machinery.

In Europe, low-wage labor and hefty subsidies feed a patchwork of more than 10 million farms. Most are a fraction of the size of the average American farm. Instead of commodity grains and produce, many have focused on higher-value crops that require more hand labor. That caters to European palates accustomed to wines made from pearl-size Champagne grapes and mozzarella from buffalo’s milk.

In many cases, rich countries have a hard time filling jobs with local people, who can choose work with fewer physical demands and higher pay. But workers from Central and Eastern Europe are attracted by minimum wages in countries like France and Germany that are more than double what similar work pays at home.

People in some countries have raised concerns that foreign workers could help spread the virus. Antiforeigner sentiment in general has increased in some countries in recent years amid a rise of nationalist groups.

The Dutch government has rolled out an information campaign in several languages to reassure Eastern European workers that they are welcome in the Netherlands during the pandemic.

Germany has chartered planes to carry 80,000 laborers from Central and Eastern Europe, with the aim of reducing the exposure of bus travel through multiple countries. The workers are screened for any symptoms of the virus upon their arrival, including temperature checks, and bussed to farms, where they are expected to live in dormitories, under quarantine conditions, until the end of May. 

News of the German airlifts led to crowding at airports in Romania, where prosecutors are now investigating the recruitment firms for violating the country’s strict lockdown regulations. One Romanian worker died of coronavirus after arriving in Germany for the harvest.

The scramble, farmers and officials say, shows the need for structural change to guarantee Europe’s food security. With the threat of a disrupted single market, countries might need to farm more staples for stockpiling and produce fewer delicacies like asparagus, farmers say. It also means developing a local workforce or increasing automation.

“No matter what, we need to think of how we organize the value chain and food chain in the future to make sure we’re more resilient,” said Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of COPA-COGECA farmers association.

Speaking before the European Parliament, EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski questioned the practice of annually transporting three billion tons of food and agricultural supplies around the continent.

Piglets transported from Denmark to Poland for fattening, he said, are then transported hundreds of additional miles for slaughter. That partly explains why cargo trucks were snarled in two days of traffic when countries suddenly closed their borders, he said.

“It’s a huge cost. One should reconsider how we shorten the distance from farm to fork,” he said.

So far, the EU has tried to alleviate the crisis by creating so-called green lanes along highways to expedite the transport of agricultural goods.

The bloc has also increased subsidies, which totaled nearly €59 billion in 2018, by allowing countries to provide up to €125,000 in state aid for each farm and €800,000 for food processing firms.

And individual countries have turned to raising national workforces.

The German government aims to recruit 10,000 workers domestically, by allowing asylum seekers to work and offering temporary contracts to students and the unemployed.

The U.K., which is in a period of transition after exiting the EU earlier this year, announced a campaign called “Pick for Britain” to recruit around 70,000 British people, including students and people who are out of work because of the virus. Following a weak response from the domestic population, some farmers emulated the German example and chartered planes to bring in workers from Romania.

France is the EU’s largest recipient of farming subsidies, and accounted for 18% of Europe’s agricultural output last year. It normally requires 270,000 seasonal farmworkers each year. Farmers’ unions say the vast majority of these workers are foreign.

Since the start of the lockdown, economic activity in the agricultural sector is down 10%, according to an estimate by France’s national statistics agency Insee.

French farmers launched a website where French workers—mainly students and service-economy workers benched by the lockdown—could apply to work at farms in need of manpower. By early April, more than 5,000 farms had hired workers. About 280,000 people have applied.

“This is an opportunity to show how interest in agriculture, a return to the land, can stir our citizens,” said French Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume.

Still, the realities of farm labor could make the transition difficult.

Fifty miles north of Paris, Matthieu Lucas was flooded with hundreds of resumes from students and other people wanting to work on his farm. He has hired 30 workers to help pick strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Some applicants demanded hefty paychecks and perks, like a company car, Mr. Lucas said, adding: “I didn’t call those people back.” But others were open to new experiences and ready to train, he said.

Ms. Rauffet, the farmer in Montbrun, France, sorts and weighs asparagus.



Photo:

Christophe Goussard/Agence VU for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Adam, the Polish migrant, had intended to work on Patrick Jouy’s strawberry farm in the south of France. Instead, the 65-year-old farmer was scrambling to replace her and dozens of other workers with local hires. Twenty-five Romanians he recruited were stuck at the German border.

The busy season for picking Mr. Jouy’s strawberries is in March and April, and the fruit’s price was beginning to recover after taking a nosedive at the start of the lockdown, when the French were stocking up on pasta and toilet paper. “March was catastrophic,” Mr. Jouy said.

Of the 45 people Mr. Jouy hired locally, 27 have already quit. Some found the work too difficult or monotonous, he said. Others were restaurant workers who took jobs selling takeout meals.

“Some told me it hurts,” Mr. Jouy said. Other workers didn’t harvest fast enough to turn a profit for the farm. “We can’t keep the ones who pick 7 or 9 pounds per hour,” he said.

East of Paris, Annie Guichon was wary of hiring French people at her family’s asparagus farm. “The French are very bad at picking asparagus,” she said, adding that they lack the stamina for working bent over in the fields.

Asparagus is one of the first crops that is harvested in Europe, and it is prized by Germans and other northern Europeans who like to eat them when their shoots are white.

Asparagus is also a sensitive crop. Farmers in France plant and cover them with black sheets to block sunlight and prevent them from turning green. Laborers draw back the sheets to harvest the asparagus, and if any are left in the ground and exposed for too long they lose value.

“It’s complicated. You have to know what you’re doing, what to look for,” Ms. Guichon says.

Ms. Guichon and her family, with the help of a former apprentice, is picking a quarter of the crop. She plans to simply leave the rest unpicked this year, because she doubts the Poles who have worked her farm for decades are going to make the trip to the Paris area, the epicenter of France’s epidemic.

Ms. Goursat had recently finished her flight attendant training when the lockdown sealed borders and grounded planes.

A French official said foreign agricultural workers remain barred from entering the country while the lockdown is in place.

On another asparagus farm, Ms. Goursat, the aspiring flight attendant, was getting used to carrying a basket that weighs around 20 pounds once she fills it with the vegetable. One of her fellow recruits had recently quit, but Charles Albrand, her boyfriend, was sticking by her side.

A geography student from Toulouse, Mr. Albrand said the learning curve was steep in the fields, adding that it was important to pace himself. The couple was considering coming back for future harvests.

“It’s true that you’re bent, doubled over, constantly. It’s quite hard,” Mr. Albrand said. “But we only work in the morning and in the afternoon we rest.”

Their employer, Sylvie Rauffet, was missing experienced workers like Manuel and Julia Fernandez, a Spanish couple that until now had made the trip to her farm from Granada for 15 years. They often brought their daughter along, allowing the family to pick about 1,300 pounds of asparagus a day.

“Maybe they could have made it, but I didn’t insist too much,” Ms. Rauffet said. “They would have had to cross all of Spain and part of France to possibly be told to turn around.”

Write to Nick Kostov at Nick.Kostov@wsj.com, Stacy Meichtry at stacy.meichtry@wsj.com and Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

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