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German asparagus season faces peril as coronavirus shuts out pickers

Reuters | Berlin | Updated: 26-03-2020 22:32 IST | Created: 26-03-2020 22:32 IST
German asparagus season faces peril as coronavirus shuts out pickers

German growers of white asparagus, an expensive delicacy savoured by food lovers in spring, fear this year's harvest may go to waste as coronavirus lockdowns shut out seasonal pickers from Eastern Europe. Ernst-August Winkelmann, whose farm in Beelitz southwest of Berlin produces about 6,000 tons of asparagus each season, says he is short of 500 pickers and risks having no choice but to leave the finger-thick white spears to rot in the soil.

Most of his seasonal workers come from Romania and Poland. The interior ministry on Wednesday said it was imposing an indefinite entry ban on fruit and vegetable pickers in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. "The decision is wrong on many levels," said Winkelmann. "We rely on those people for a living. We also have very high hygiene standards, we house our workers in separate facilities and they live on the farm. So the risk is low."

Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner acknowledged on Thursday that Germany won't be able to replace the almost 300,000 seasonal agricultural workers, most of whom come from eastern European countries. "The staffing situation is very tight along the full length of the food supply chain," she told a news conference. "Supplies of labour from neighbouring countries have shrunk, sometimes very sharply, with slaughterhouses, meatpackers and dairies particularly seriously affected."

Highlighting the importance of asparagus in German culture, the mass-selling Bild newspaper raised the possibility of drafting soldiers to help with picking the vegetable, which is typically served drenched in butter or with Hollandaise sauce, schnitzel and potatoes. Germans are famed for their love of white asparagus rather than the more common green variety. At Winkelmann's farm, 95% of the harvest if of the white variety.

"We've been getting calls from people saying they want to volunteer and come help us," said Winkelmann. "It is heartening but we need to train these people and time is pressing we need to start picking now."


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