Spargelzeit: German farmers raise alarm as coronavirus border closures impact seasonal workers

Whether it's served with butter and ham, drowned in hollandaise sauce or topped with a fried egg, nothing says spring in Germany like Spargel (asparagus).

Spargelzeit: German farmers raise alarm as coronavirus border closures impact seasonal workers
Seasonal workers in Weiterstadt, Hesse. Photo: DPA

But this year, the cherished vegetable may be a rare sight on dining tables as many of the foreign seasonal workers who would usually harvest the crop are unable to enter the country because of travel bans imposed over the coronavirus.

“The situation is very tense for us farmers,” says Thomas Syring, who runs a farm in Beelitz, a town in the state of Brandenburg known for its cultivation of white asparagus.

Syring is just one of hundreds of farmers faced with the threat that his crops may be left rotting in the fields because of a serious shortage of workers.

With warmer weather looming, farmers across Europe are scrambling for ways to fill the manpower gap as travel restrictions imposed to halt COVID-19 contagion toughen.

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Tens of thousands needed

During a normal season, Syring's farm employs about 60 workers from Romania, Poland and Bulgaria. At present, only 10 have arrived.

“At the moment it is cold again, it will slow down the growth of the asparagus. But in a week, at the latest, the asparagus will come out of the ground and continue to grow,” he warns at his farm, where rows upon rows of asparagus are waiting beneath sheets of white plastic to keep the soil warm.

Jürgen Jakob of Beelitzer Spargel, an association for asparagus farmers in Beelitz, says only half of the 5,000 seasonal workers required in the region have arrived so far this year.

READ ALSO: Germany imposes border controls with five countries due to coronavirus crisis

“There is a need for quick clarification on how workers from Romania and Poland in particular can enter Germany,” says Udo Hemmerling, general secretary of the German Farmers' Association.

Around 300,000 seasonal workers come to Germany each year, mainly from Poland and Romania, to help with fruit and vegetable harvests, according to Hemmerling.

In Austria, which is facing a manpower shortage of 5,000 to help in fruit and vegetable farms, the ministry has set up a website to get people in other sectors to sign up and help.

File photo of asparagus. Photo: DPA

And in Switzerland, fears are growing that only a fraction of the 33,000 seasonal workers required annually will be available this year.

READ ALSO: What's the latest on coronavirus in Germany and what do I need to know?

Double pay

German agriculture minister Julia Klöckner said Europe's biggest economy requires “30,000 seasonal workers in March alone, with the number rising to 85,000 in May”.

She has suggested filling some of the vacancies with workers who have suddenly found themselves unemployed because of the coronavirus crisis.

Measures agreed by the cabinet on Monday to help farmers include allowing the workers that are available to work for longer, and easing red tape around hiring temporary workers from other sectors.

But the farmers still prefer to bring in experienced farmhands from abroad.

READ ALSO: Drivers turned back as Germany partially closes borders

With land transit routes blocked, some have resorted to flying workers in on chartered flights, but even though they have valid work permits, some are still not being allowed in.

Others are offering better deals to entice workers.

“For asparagus, our partners are offering to double salaries, as well as very good conditions on accommodation and catering to assure workers that they won't need to go out,” says Emese Molnar, who runs a Romanian company that sends seasonal workers to countries including Germany and the Netherlands.

But beyond border barriers, some are simply worried about travelling.

“If they're too afraid to leave their home, how can they go abroad?” asked Simona, a Romanian seasonal labour agent.

For Beelitz's Jakob, time might be running out.

“We are now very close to the asparagus harvest, but if we do not have enough harvest workers, we will not be able to harvest the whole crop,” he warns.

Bringing in workers from other sectors won't solve the problem because of the time it takes to train them.

“Perhaps they will have learned how to do it by the end of the asparagus season, but that doesn't help us very much,” Jakob says.

By Tobias Schwarz with Femke Colburn in Berlin

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‘People liked the silence’: How Berlin’s club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Berlin's clubs are suffering from staff shortages, a lack of guests... and neighbours who've grown used to the silence, representatives for the scene say.

'People liked the silence': How Berlin's club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Some operators from Berlin’s club scene are bracing themselves for a difficult autumn. For months now, people have been allowed to dance again and life has returned to normal in the dark corners of Berlin’s famous nightlife scene.

But the clubs have far from recovered from the pandemic. They face staff shortages, rising prices and the prospect of a return to Covid restrictions in the autumn.

“We go into the autumn with huge fear, because the omens are totally unfavorable,” said association head Pamela Schobeß.

Spring and summer went anything but smoothly, she said. “There has been an oversupply of events. People aren’t going out as much, and some are still afraid to move around indoors.”

Money is also an issue. “A lot of people are afraid of rising energy prices.”

The industry lost workers during the pandemic and it’s hard to convince them to come back with the outlook for the autumn looking so gloomy, Schobeß says.

Her colleague Robin Schellenberg tells a similar story. People have switched to various other jobs and would even rather work on a supermarket checkout, which may have been considered less sexy in the past. Now, he says, some have learned to love not having to work nights.


Schellenberg runs the Klunkerkranich, a small club on a parking garage deck in Neukölln. Because a number of things have become more expensive, they have also had to increase their admission prices.

His impression is that people are going out less often and are deciding more spontaneously. In addition, people in the neighborhood are now more sensitive to noise. “Many people found the silence very enticing,” he said.

Some in the industry wonder what will happen next. Will club admission have to become much more expensive? Will that exclude people who can no longer afford it? And what happens if Covid infection numbers rise sharply?

If masks become mandatory indoors in October, Schobeß believes that would be bad for the clubs. “Even if we don’t get shut down by the state, we’ll actually have to close down independently ourselves,” she reckons.

Masks take all the joy out of the experience, she says. People have drinks in their hands and are “jumping around and dancing” and then security guards have to tell them “please put your mask on.”

The federal government is considering whether states should be able to make masks mandatory indoors starting in October. Exceptions should be possible, such as at cultural and sporting events, for people who have been tested, recently vaccinated and recently recovered.

In the event that Covid numbers soar, the states could then be allowed to tighten the rules and eliminate all exemptions.

READ ALSO: German court declares techno to be music